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Introduction to the Book of Jeremiah

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Jeremiah the prophet

We know far more about the life of Jeremiah than any other prophet. In his book, Jeremiah exposes his personal feelings, his personal relationship with God, as well as his inner conflicts, as well as his physical and emotional suffering.

Jeremiah was a lonely rejected figure, who was not understood or appreciated. He was rejected by his neighbours in Anathoth (11:21), his family (12:6), his friends (20:12), the priests (20:1-2), the prophets (26:8), all the people (26:8), and even the king (36:23). He had a life of threats and persecution, spending a night in the stocks, and being thrown into mud-filled cistern and left to die. He had periods in prison, and was put on trial for his life. The people of his home town plotted to take his life, because he was considered a traitor. He was hated by King Jehoiakim, opposed by the priests and the false prophets. He was called to a life of singleness as a prophetic statement.

Most of the information recorded is of his call to be a prophet in 627 BC, and from the time after the death of Josiah in 609 until the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC. Because many oracles are undated, some may be from the period before 609 BC.

Jeremiah’s family background

Jeremiah was born in Anathoth, a small town three miles north-east of Jerusalem. This was a Levitical city within the territory of Benjamin (Josh 21:18). He was born into a priestly family, son of Hilkiah, a different person from Hilkah the high priest. A priest not based in Jerusalem would have been deprived of their priesthood and ministry by Josiah's reformation, which called for centralised worship in Jerusalem. Because Jeremiah supported this, his family opposed him. The priests who were in Anathoth (1:1) were probably those descended from Abiathar, who had supported Adonijah to be king after the death of David (1 Kings 1:5). Solomon expelled him to Anathoth, even though he deserved death (1 Kings 2:26). This action fulfilled the word concerning the house of Eli in Shiloh (1 Kings 2:27), which may explain Jeremiah's interest in Shiloh (ch 7). Jeremiah’s family could trace their descent from Eli and Aaron, giving them a strong heritage of the priesthood and the traditions of the covenant.

Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet was in the thirteenth year of Josiah (1:2), 627 BC. At this time he was a young unmarried man, probably between sixteen and twenty years old (1:6), so he was probably born between 645 and 640 BC, at the end of the reign of the evil king Manasseh. He was approximately the same age as King Josiah.

We have no information about Jeremiah’s childhood, but he would have certainly been trained in the great traditions of Israel's faith and history. There is no evidence for Jeremiah being trained for, or ministering as priest. However, coming from a priestly city, he would be familiar with the duties of the priesthood and way they were being ignored. He would be grieved that the priests of his time were not teaching the Law of God, but were supporting the pagan idolatry of Manasseh and Amon. As a young Jew, he would also be very familiar with the great stories of past, particularly the exodus. His book also shows a connection with the language and thought of Hosea, who prophesied in the previous century. He probably had a traditional and conservative background, and living near Jerusalem, would be aware of the political events of his time. He was probably became sensitive to Yahweh at an early age, hating the idolatry that surrounded him, which prepared him for his call to prophetic ministry.

Historical Background of Jeremiah’s ministry

Jeremiah’s ministry was during a time of great political and religious crisis in Judah, and complete ferment in the whole Middle East. During his life, the Assyrian empire collapsed, to be replaced by Babylon, Egypt declined in power, and Judah was wiped off the map. This period is described in 2 Kg 18-25 and 2 Chr 29-36.

There are five major periods of Jeremiah’s life: The first is the time before the accession of King Josiah (640 BC), the second is the period of Josiah's reign (640 - 609 BC). The third period is from Josiah's death to the first siege of Jerusalem (609 - 598/7), the fourth from 598/7 to the Fall of Jerusalem (598 - 587/6 BC), and the final period after the fall of Jerusalem.

1. Before the accession of Josiah

Manasseh came to power in 687 BC, and ruled for fifty-five years, part of that time as a regent. His evil reign is described as follows: "He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, following the abominable practices of the nations. He rebuilt the high places, that his father Hezekiah had destroyed. He erected altars for Baal, made a sacred pole (Asherah), as King Ahab had done, worshipped all the host of heaven, and served them. He built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord. He made his son pass through fire; he practised soothsaying and augury, and dealt with mediums and wizards. The carved image of Asherah that he had made he set in the house (of the Lord).” 2 Kg 21:2 - 9). Because of him, God pronounced inevitable judgement on Judah (2 Kg 21:10-15).

Judah had been a vassal state of Assyria since 732 BC, during the reign of Ahaz, following the Syro-Ephraimite War (Is 7). Hezekiah rebelled against Assyria, introducing reforms, bringing the nation back to the worship of Yahweh. In 701 BC, Assyria invaded Judah under King Sennacherib. This was the miraculous relief of Jerusalem, when the Assyrian army was killed by the angel of the Lord (Is 36-37). Manasseh returned to a pro-Assyria policy, cancelled Hezekiah's reforms, and returned the nation to idolatry. Manasseh died in 642 BC, to be followed by the brief reign of his son Amon, who was as evil as father. Amon was assassinated by anti-Assyrian officials.

2. Josiah's reign (640 - 609) and the collapse of Assyria

Josiah became king in 640 BC at the age of eight (2 Chr 34:1), after Amon (his father) was assassinated. In 632 BC, when Josiah was sixteen years old, he started to seek God and renounced the idolatry of Amon and Manasseh (2 Chr 34:3). A few years later, in 627 BC, he started his reforms, purging Judah and Jerusalem of the high places and idols (2 Chr 34:3-7), when he was about twenty years old. Josiah’s reforms even extended into the old Northern Kingdom (Samaria & Gilead).

About 627 BC, Jeremiah received the call from God to be his prophet to the nations (Jer 1). No description of his spiritual experience is given, in contrast to Isaiah and Ezekiel. We can see that he did not receive his call with eagerness, as he made excuses of being too young (1:7). In many ways he was never emotionally reconciled with his ministry, seen through his confessions and complaints.

His early oracles show his conviction that he is living in a nation under judgement from Yahweh. His message is a call to repentance, but the people were not willing to repent. An enemy from the north will be God's hand of judgment on Jerusalem and Judah (1:14). Early in his ministry Jeremiah was forbidden to marry by God (16:1). This was a strong symbolic action, which broke the customs of the time. He would live a life of loneliness, without the joy of home and family. He was called not to be part of the happiness of celebrations or of mourning. This was pointing to the time when no joy will be in the land, and grief will not be able to be expressed.

His early messages are probably recorded in chapters two to six, which are messages of judgment on the nation’s idolatry and immorality. He borrows language from Hosea of the unfaithful wife (2:1). He pleads to his people to repent, or judgment will come. He makes verbal attacks on Baal and other pagan gods, using plays on words, calling them "worthlessness" or "not profit" (2:5), and expresses surprise of a nation changing its gods which is contrary to nature, and has never happened before (2:11).

Ashurbanipal, the last great king of Assyria, died in 626 BC, around the time of Jeremiah’s call. After his death, Assyria declined rapidly with internal conflict, rebellion by vassals, and invasion by surrounding nations in all directions. Judah now entered into a period of independence, becoming free from the yoke of Assyria. This left Josiah free to carry out his reforms, with no opposition from Assyria. At this time Babylon also became independent under their first king, Nabopolassar, and quickly became a threat to the heartland of Assyria. Egypt also grew stronger under Psammetichus I.

Josiah's reforms

Jeremiah was not particularly involved in Josiah’s reforms. He would not have been well-known at this stage, so he was not consulted when a deputation was sent to Huldah (2 Kg 22). Jeremiah would have supported the king's general aims, but would criticise them for not being deep enough. He would see that superficial and external measures did not change the hearts of the people. Official reformation was not enough, repentance and turning to Yahweh was needed as well. Much secret idolatry was still continuing in the nation. External religious practice was not a substitute for inward obedience. Supporters of Josiah and their sons later supported Jeremiah against Jehoiakim and Zedekiah. These included Josiah’s secretary Shaphan (2 Kings 22:3) and his sons Ahikam and Gemariah.

Around 622 BC, the book of the law was discovered, as the temple was being restored (2 Kg 22:8). This is thought to be a copy of at least part of the Book of Deuteronomy. In response, Josiah repented, and his reformation intensified greatly and the Passover was celebrated. There are no dated oracles in the Book of Jeremiah after 622 BC, until the death of Josiah in 609 BC. However, he probably continued bringing God’s word, as he said that he preached persistently until 605 BC (Jer 25:3), so he would not have been silent during these years.

In 617 BC, Babylon began to attack the Assyrian cities, with help from the Medes. In 612 BC, Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, fell to the Medes and Babylonians. The remnant of Assyria under Ashuruballit, became allied to Egypt, who saw Assyria as helpful buffer state against Babylon.

3. From the Death of Josiah to the first siege of Jerusalem

In 609 BC, Pharaoh Necho and the Egyptian army marched north to support the remnant of Assyria. Josiah opposed them and intercepted the Egyptian army at Megiddo and was killed (2 Kg 23:29). This was a disaster to Judah, and marked a sudden end to his reforms, and a return to Canaanite paganism. Josiah was succeeded by his second son Jehoahaz, also known as Shallum. Judah lost its independence, and became a vassal of Egypt. After three months, Necho deposed Jehoahaz, who was taken to Egypt as hostage. Jehoiakim, his older brother was placed on throne as puppet king of Egypt. Judah now had to pay tribute to Egypt, as their independence was again lost. Jehoiakim was young, arrogant and selfish, using slave labour to build himself a great palace. He showed great contempt for Jeremiah and other prophets.

After 609 BC, there are several major periods of prophecy in Jeremiah's life, interspersed with periods of silence. The major periods are: 609 BC - the temple sermon, 605 BC - the writing of the scroll, and its reading on a national fast day, 598 BC - messages to Zedekiah, 594 BC - the acted message of the yoke bars, and during the fall of the city in 587-586.

Jeremiah would be about thirty-five years old in 609 BC. He saw that the death of Josiah was a critical time for Judah, and uttered a lament for him (2 Chr 35:25). He also gave a word about Jehoahaz (Shallum) (Jer 22:10-12).

In his famous temple sermon (ch 7), Jeremiah spoke out against superstitious trust in the temple. There will be no physical security if social justice and immorality are ignored, leaving only an outward veneer of religion. The house will be destroyed just as God’s sanctuary in Shiloh was destroyed by the Philistines (1 Sam 4). Jeremiah hated empty religiosity. As a consequence of his temple sermon, Jeremiah was put on trial for his life (ch 26), and another prophet called Uriah was killed. Jeremiah was helped and protected by Josiah's supporters sons. From this point he was banned from entering the temple. He now had a life of persecution, which led to struggles about his call to be a prophet, which are recorded in his so-called “confessions”. This was a turning point in Jeremiah's life.

From this time onward, Jeremiah had a deepening conviction that Babylon was God's agent of judgment, the enemy from the north. He saw that the priests and prophets were lying to the people, preaching what people wanted to hear, "peace, peace - when there is not peace" (6:14). Probably his visit to the potter's house and the smashing of the vessel happened at this time (ch 18). After Jeremiah was banned from entering the temple Baruch acted as Jeremiah's spokesman. Jeremiah was arrested, beaten and put in stocks for the night (20:2), when he was cursed and jeered at. While in the stocks, he expressed his deepest agony of burden of message, almost being blasphemous, when he cursed the day he was born (20:14). However, the Word of God was burning within, and he could not stop preaching (20:9). Amongst the population there was a growing resentment toward Jeremiah, and the people of Anathoth plotted to take his life.

Battle of Carchemish (605 BC)

In 605 BC, a very significant battle was fought at Carchemish, when the Egyptian army was soundly beaten by prince Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army. Babylon now became world power, driving Egypt back to its own land. This marked a turning point in the history of the ancient Near East, and for Judah. After his victory Nebuchadnezzar returned to Babylon to be crowned king, following the death of King Napolassar. By this time, Jeremiah was about forty years old. After Carchemish he had a sense of impending doom, as Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians became the previously unspecified enemy from the north.

In 604 BC, Nebuchadnezzar attacked Philistine cities and Judah, and surrounded Jerusalem. A national fast was proclaimed (Jer 36). Jehoiakim submitted to Nebuchadnezzar and Judah became a vassal of Babylon. There was a small deportation of able young men (including Daniel) to be trained to serve in the Babylonian civil service. This was the first deportation from Judah, and marked the beginning of the exile in Babylon.

Jeremiah called Baruch to write down all the prophesies from 627 BC to 605 BC and read them to the people in the temple on the day of fasting, when temple would be full (Jer 36). The nation must know that the prophecies are about to be fulfilled, and this is the last warning to repent. Jeremiah was forbidden to enter the temple, so he sent Baruch instead. He also gave a personal word of encouragement for Baruch at this time (Jer 45).

The scroll was read to the people, the princes and finally the king. Baruch and Jeremiah were sent into hiding, because Jehoiakim burnt the first scroll and sought to kill Jeremiah. Baruch wrote the second scroll, repeating the first scroll, but also including some extra material (Jer 36). There was now no hope of the nation repenting, so Jeremiah was told not to pray for them any more (14:11). He prophesied that the exile would last for seventy years (Jer 25) from this date to the laying of the foundation of the temple (536 BC). He also gave prophecies concerning Babylon's downfall (Jer 50-51).

Because there are no recorded words for Judah from Jeremiah until 598 BC, it has been suggested that he performed the symbolic act of burying his loincloth beyond the Euphrates at this time. Some of Jeremiah's prophecies concerning the enemy nations came from this time: including Egypt (ch 46), Philistia (ch 47) and Moab (ch 48).

In 601 BC, Nebuchadnezzar attacked Egypt, but met strong resistance, so he had to retreat to rebuild his army. After Nebuchadnezzar's defeat, Judah rejected Babylonian suzerainty in 598 BC, and made an alliance with Egypt (1 Kg 24:1). Babylon sent in the army again, defeating Syria and attacking Judah.

The first siege of Jerusalem (598 BC)

In 597 BC, the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem for three months. During this time, Jehoiakim died, possibly being assassinated (Josephus Ant 10.6-3). Jerusalem fell in March 597 but was not destroyed. The Babylonian Chronicle dates the capture of Jerusalem on second day of Adar, the 15th or 16th March 597 BC. Jehoiachin, the son of Jehoiakim, ruled for three months, before being deported to Babylon, together with many skilled and educated people (including Ezekiel). This was the second and largest deportation to Babylon, leaving only the poorest in the land (2 Kg 24:12-17).

By this time, Jeremiah was about forty-eight years old. He predicted Jehoiachin's and his mother's deportation (Jer 13:18ff, 22:24-30, which was fulfilled in 29:2). Jeremiah saw that the hope for the future lay with those in exile, who he called “the good figs”. Jehoiachin was still seen as the legitimate Jewish king. False prophets predicted a speedy return (ch 27 - 28), but Jeremiah predicted seventy years of exile. Zedekiah, the youngest son of Josiah, and the uncle of Jehoiachin, was put on throne by Nebuchadnezzar as vassal of Babylon. Zedekiah was weak and indecisive, but who believed what Jeremiah said. However he was not strong enough to support him, and obey his words. He was surrounded by inexperienced nationalistic advisers, who were pro-Egyptian, who Jeremiah calls “the bad figs” (Jer 24). The prophecy concerning Elam was also given at this time (Jer 49:34-39).

4. From the first siege to the Fall of Jerusalem

In 594 or 593 BC there was an uprising in Babylon, possibly by the Jewish exiles. This increased hope in Judah for the fall of Babylon in Judah. Egypt under Psammetichus II sought to persuade Edom, Ammon, Moab, Tyre and Sidon to join a planned rebellion against Babylon suzerainty. Ambassadors from several nations met in Jerusalem in an attempt to persuade Zedekiah to join them, being backed by a pro-Egyptian party in his court.

Jeremiah was now about fifty-two years old. Jeremiah came in to this international meeting wearing an ox-yoke, telling them to submit to Babylon, and is accused of treason (ch 27). Another prophet called Hananiah contradicted Jeremiah, and broke Jeremiah’s wooden yoke, so Jeremiah prophesied a yoke of iron and the death of Hananiah (ch 28). False prophets were predicting a short exile of two years, so Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles in Babylon, telling them to prepare for a longer stay there (Jer 29). He also sent a letter to Babylon predicting its downfall (Jer 51:59-66).

After 594 BC, there are no recorded words from Jeremiah until just before the fall of Jerusalem, by which time he was fifty-eight years old. In 588 BC, Zedekiah, under pressure from his officials, broke the treaty and rebelled against Babylon by joining the alliance with Egypt (2 Kg 24:20). In response, Babylon invaded Judah and destroyed its cities. Jerusalem was put under siege for eighteen months. Zedekiah sent messengers to Jeremiah to ask him to inquire of the Lord. In response, Jeremiah told the king to surrender to Nebuchadnezzar (ch 21). Zedekiah was hoping for an encouraging message, but did not get one (Jer 34:1-7). The king believed Jeremiah was right but was over-shadowed by his advisors.

The Egyptian army, led by Pharaoh Hophra, came to help Zedekiah, so Babylon sent forces from the siege against the Egyptian army, temporarily relieving Jerusalem. It was during this lull that the freed slaves were taken back into slavery, and their owners received a rebuke from Jeremiah (Jer 34). Zedekiah sent another messenger to Jeremiah, to ask the significance of Egyptian help. Again he says there is no hope. It will only be a short lull, after which the Babylonians will return (Jer 37:6-10).

After a death in Jeremiah's family, he left Jerusalem to settle business. He was arrested as he was leaving city, charged with deserting to the enemy. He was beaten and thrown into a muddy cistern to die, except Ebed-melech went to the king and rescued Jeremiah (Jer 38). The city came under siege again, and Jeremiah remained in prison in the court of the guard until the city fell (37:11-21). He still told Zedekiah that the city is doomed, and it is best to desert to the enemy. While in prison he arranged to buy his cousin's field in Anathoth to show the day will come when life will return to normal (Jer 32-33). There is a of hope of restoration to the land. His word to Ethiopia was also given about this time (Jer 39:15-18).

After a siege lasting eighteen months, the Babylonian army broke into Jerusalem Zedekiah escaped, but was captured at Jericho. His sons were killed in front of him, before he was blinded and taken to exile in Babylon, where he died. Most of the remaining people were deported, leaving only the very poor in the land. This was the third deportation, when the city was plundered and burned. The objects of worship taken from the temple to Babylon. The temple was destroyed, probably including the ark of the covenant. Jeremiah watched his people be taken into exile. He probably composed the poems in the Book of Lamentations at this time. He also gave message of hope, recorded in the Book of Comfort (ch 30-31).

5. After the Fall of Jerusalem

Judah was incorporated into the Babylonian provincial system. Gedaliah was appointed governor by Nebuchadnezzar, based at Mizpah, in an attempt to restore order. Jeremiah was given the choice to stay in the land or go to Babylon, and chose to remain in Jerusalem. Gedaliah the governor was friendly toward Jeremiah. His father, Ahikam, had earlier saved his life (ch 26).

After three months, Gedaliah was assassinated by Ishmael (Jer 41), a member of the royal family, with help from the King of Ammon. Jews, fearing vengeance from Nebuchadnezzar, wanted to flee to Egypt. The people inquired of the Lord concerning going to Egypt (Jer 42). Jeremiah told them to stay in the land, but they disobeyed his word and fled to Egypt, taking Jeremiah with them. Jeremiah’s last message in Egypt was condemning their idolatry. It is clear that they had not learnt the lesson of exile, so Jeremiah prophesied judgment on them in Egypt (Jer 43-44). This is the last recorded event or word of Jeremiah’s life. He was now about sixty years old, and probably died soon after this in Egypt. In 582 BC, there was a final deportation of the poorest of the poor, the “'final wiping of the dish” (Jer 52:30).

Literature of the book

The Book of Jeremiah consists of a mixture of three different types of literature. There are many brief oracles in prophetic poetry, in which Jeremiah brings the word of the Lord to the people. Sometimes he brings a word to a specific individual, or even a personal word for the king.

There is a large amount of narrative, giving biographical events in Jeremiah’s life (especially ch 26-29, 34-35). Most is this gives many vivid details of the life of Jeremiah after 605 BC. It is in the third person, probably written by Baruch about Jeremiah.

The third type is the lengthy prose speeches and discourses. These are wordy, repetitious and rhetorical, and are mostly found in the autobiographical sections (ch 7, 11). They have a close connection to the Book of Deuteronomy. He shows that judgement will soon come on the nation because of their persistent idolatry. Jeremiah is calling for repentance and a return to the covenant. He shows that the curses of Deuteronomy are being fulfilled in his own time, because of the idolatry and sinfulness of the nation. Jeremiah is often known as the Deuteronomic prophet.

When reading the book, it is helpful to recognise who is speaking, and who they are addressing: This can be Jeremiah speaking to God, or to the people, the king, or to Baruch. Otherwise Baruch can be addressing the reader. There are many words from Yahweh, to the people, or to Jeremiah personally. Sometimes the people of Jerusalem or Jeremiah’s enemies are speaking.

Key words and themes

The Word of the Lord

The expression, “The Word of the LORD” is used 349 times in whole O.T. and 157 of those times are in Jeremiah. Jeremiah is truly the prophet of the Word of the Lord. Jeremiah introduces his oracles with the characteristic phrase, “The word of the LORD came to me”. The Hebrew word for “word” is “dabar”, pronounced “davar”. It is a word and an action. What the Lord says, he will he will accomplish. This is the significance of first vision, of the branch of almond, that the Lord is watching over his word to perform it (1:12). At his call, the Lord touched Jeremiah's mouth and said, "Behold, I have put my words in your mouth" (1:9). Jeremiah was very aware that he was speaking God's word, however unpopular they may be. The Lord later said that he was making his words a fire in Jeremiah's mouth (5:14), that his words would destroy the people - a prediction of the coming invasion.

Pluck up ..., build and plant

At his call, God summarised Jeremiah’s ministry as follows: “I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10). Judgement must come before restoration. This is referred to a number of times through the book (12:14-17, 18:7-10, 24:6, 31:27-29, 32:41, 42:10, 45:4). The description of Jeremiah in the Book of Ecclesiasticus in the Apocrypha also describes Jeremiah this way: "All the kings, except David, Hezekiah, and Josiah, were terrible sinners, because the abandoned the law of the Most High to the very end of their kingdom. They surrendered their power and honour to foreigners, who set fire to the holy city and left its streets deserted; just as Jeremiah had predicted. Jeremiah had been badly treated, even though he was chosen as a prophet before he was born, "to uproot and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow", but also "to build and to plant". (49:7)

Repent, or turn

This is probably the truly key word of Jeremiah’s message. The Hebrew word for repent, or to turn is the word "sub", pronounced "shoov". It means to turn toward or to turn away, to turn toward God, or to turn away from him. It is also used to describe God turning away from judgement, translated as God repenting or changing his mind in some English Bibles. It is probably better to use the word “relent”. The word is used to described a dynamic of relationship between God and his people. If people turn back (repent) to God, then God will turn (repent) from judgement. Otherwise if people turn away from God (apostasy), through perpetual backsliding (turning away), then God will turn away from blessing to judgement (see 8:4-7).

Apostasy basically means “to turn away from”, the opposite of repentance, and uses the same root word in Hebrew (2:19). Being faithless, literally means “those who have turned away”, so God calls faithless Israel to return (3:12) - those who have turned away are called to turn back once again.

The Promises of God are threatened by the people's disobedience. If the people disobey God, he threatens judgement through disease, exile and destruction of the city. They will cease to be God’s people. However if the people repent, then God will relents (turn) from the threatened judgement. He will forgive his people, and restore them to the land. Again they become God’s people.

The themes of plucking up and turning are seen clearly in the dynamic way God deals with nations. If a nation repents from its evil, then God will turn from judgement: “At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it.” (18:7-8). However if a nation turns to evil, then God will turn from blessing to judgement: “And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it". (18:9-10).

Echoes of the Exodus

For Jeremiah, the Exodus was Israel's dominant spiritual experience. The Exodus from Egypt, the covenant at Sinai and the entry to the promised land all show that Yahweh is sovereign in history and that the nation of Israel came into existence by God's control and God's grace alone. Jeremiah's message is that Judah has forgotten what God has done and have broken the covenant. He calls them to remember the love they had as a bride in the wilderness (2:2-8), and reminds them of their disobedience in the wilderness (7:21-26). The return from exile in Babylon will be a second Exodus (16:14-15, 23:7-8).

Jeremiah's symbolic actions

Jeremiah frequently used symbolic actions to accompany his spoken word. The action gave a vivid visual illustration of the Word of God he was proclaiming, as well as acting as a visible word. A spoken word supported with a visible word would communicate the mind of God very forcefully. Symbolic actions were a common technique of OT prophets, also used by Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Hosea.

The Loincloth (ch 13)

God called Jeremiah to bury a worn but unwashed loincloth at the River Euphrates, then to return there many days later, to dig up a spoiled and useless loincloth. The loincloth symbolised God's relationship with his people. As a loincloth clings to the body of a man, God made Israel and Judah to cling to him. They were pure and clean when they first clung to God, but are now like a rotten loincloth, so will be rejected by God and will go to exile beyond the Euphrates.

Smashed wine-jars (13:12-14)

Jeremiah commanded that every wine-jar should be filled with wine. The smashing of these wine-jars symbolised the downfall of the Davidic dynasty and the city of Jerusalem. Jeremiah went on to predict the exile of king and people (13:18-19).

Remaining unmarried (ch 16)

Remaining single into adult life was a very unusual thing in Jewish culture, and a great disgrace. He was showing that on the coming day of judgement both parents and children will die, and that the nation has no future. Jeremiah was also excluded from all festivities of life (weddings & funerals). Jeremiah was to be as emotionless as possible, showing no joy or sympathy, showing that no festivity, mourning, or marriage will be possible when the Babylonian army comes.

Vessel smashed at Potsherd gate (ch 19)

Jeremiah bought a potter's earthen flask and broke it before the elders and priests in the valley of the Son of Hinnom at the Potsherd Gate. While the clay was soft, it was possible to reshape it, but the clay, or nation, had hardened, so was only fit for smashing. The vessel is Judah and Jerusalem which are about to be broken when God brings judgement and destruction on the city. The Potsherd Gate was the gate of the city where potters dumped their wasted pieces of pottery. The Valley of the Son of Hinnom was the site of child sacrifice, showing that Judah is like a useless pot. As a result, Jeremiah was beaten and put into the stocks, mocked and made a laughing stock.

The cup of wine (ch 25)

God handed Jeremiah a cup of wine, which symbolised his wrath both on Judah and on the nations. All nations, including Judah, and finally Babylon, had to drink the wine of God's wrath, and this judgement foreshadows the final judgement.

The Rechabites (ch 35)

The Rechabites were a group of nomads who did not drink wine or live in houses, following a command of their distant ancestor, Jonadab. Jeremiah told them to drink wine but they refused, contrasting their great faithfulness to their principles with the unfaithfulness of Jerusalem to Yahweh.

Wooden yoke bars (ch 28)

Jeremiah wore wooden yoke bars and went into the meeting of the foreign ambassadors with Zedekiah, who were plotting a revolt against Babylon, telling them to submit to yoke of Nebuchadnezzar. Hananiah broke the yoke bars as prophetic act, but this was a false prophecy, so later Jeremiah prophesied about iron yoke bars.

Purchase of a field (ch 32)

While the Babylonian armies were besieging Jerusalem, and Jeremiah was being held in the court of the guard, he bought a field from his cousin under his right of redemption. It would seem folly to buy a field when destruction and exile was certain, but he was demonstrating the hope of return from exile, a return to normal life of buying houses and fields.

Casting a scroll into the River Euphrates (ch 51)

Seraiah son of Neriah who was taken to Babylon with Zedekiah was to cast a scroll into the Euphrates containing a statement of all the evil Yahweh intended to do to Babylon. As he did so, he had to proclaim, "Thus shall Babylon sink, to rise no more ..." (51:64).

Burying stones in Egypt (ch 43)

This was Jeremiah's final acted prophecy. God told Jeremiah to bury some large stones in the clay pavement at the entrance of Pharaoh's palace in Tahpanhes. Then he predicted that Babylon will invade Egypt and that Nebuchadnezzar will set up his throne above these stones. The people will not be able to escape from the Babylonians, even in Egypt.


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