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Formation of the Book of Jeremiah (chapters 36 and 25)

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Related articles

Interpreting OT Prophets Dates of kings of Judah and Israel
The Assyrian empire The Babylonian empire
Introduction to the Book of Jeremiah Call of Jeremiah to be Prophet to the Nations (1:1-19)

The Book of Jeremiah is not in chronological order, which can make it difficult to follow. Instead it is in the form of a collection, or an anthology, of the words and events in the life of the prophet arranged in topical and thematic order.

The Book of Jeremiah is unique in the way it gives clues about the actual writing and formation of the book. The account in chapter 36 gives some understanding about the way the Book of Jeremiah was assembled.

Two scrolls

There were two original scrolls of the Book of Jeremiah. The first was burnt by King Jehoiakim, and the second was a copy made by Jeremiah’s secretary, Baruch, with some additions.

The first scroll (36:4-8)

This was the original copy of the Book of Jeremiah. In the fourth year of Jehoiakim (605 BC), God told Jeremiah to write down all the words spoken to him since his call to be a prophet in the days of Josiah (627 BC) until the current time (605 BC). God was wanting the people to turn from their evil ways when they hear Jeremiah’s prediction of disaster, so they can be forgiven (36:1-3).

"Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah until today" (Jer 36:2).

Jeremiah dictated the words of the Lord to his secretary Baruch, who wrote the words on a scroll (36:4). Baruch was the brother of Seraiah, the quartermaster of King Zedekiah (51:59), who served Jeremiah faithfully. Because Jeremiah was not allowed to enter the temple following his Temple Sermon (chs 7 and 26) he instructed Baruch to read the words in the hearing of the people (36:6).

It was at this time Jeremiah gave Baruch some words of encouragement (45:1-5). It appears that Baruch, like Jeremiah, was reluctant to give the message of judgement. He repeats God’s word that he will break down and pluck up, bringing disaster, but God will preserve the life of Baruch through the judgement.

This scroll was then read aloud three times in one day in the year 604 BC (36:9)

The first reading - to the people (36:9-10)

The first reading was given to a large audience in the temple. It was on a day of fasting following the Babylonian capture of Philistia. Baruch stood in the chamber of Gemariah son of Shaphan in the temple (36:10). The sons and grandsons of Shaphan were princes and officials in the court of King Zedekiah, who generally supported Jeremiah. Shaphan had been the state secretary for King Josiah (2 Kg 22).

The second reading - to the officials (36:11-19)

Gemariah’s son Micaiah went to the secretary’s chamber and reported the contents of the scroll to the king’s officials. They then sent for Baruch and ordered him to read the scroll to them. Alarmed at the content of the scroll, the officials said they must report the words to the king (36:16), and warned Baruch and Jeremiah to go into hiding (36:19).

The third reading - to the king (36:20-26)

The officials went to King Jehoiakim who was sitting before a fire in his winter apartment. Jehudi was sent to get the scroll and read it to the king. After he read three or four columns, the king cut them off and threw them into the fire, even though his officials urged him not to burn the scroll. None of the people including the king were alarmed or repentant when they heard the words (36:24). The king then ordered his officials to arrest Baruch and Jeremiah, but the Lord hid them (36:26).

There is a great contrast between Jehoiakim who burnt the words of the Lord, and failed to listen or repent, with Josiah, his father, who had repented and brought in great reforms when the words of the Lord were read to him (2 Kg 22:11).

The second scroll (36:27-32)

When Jeremiah was told what had happened, he commanded Baruch to write another scroll, including the words on the first scroll, but with many similar words added to them (36:32).

What was on the original scroll?

It is very difficult to be completely certain about the contents of the scroll, but we can make an attempt to reconstruct it. The first scroll was read three times in one day (twice by Baruch, and once by Jehudi), so it could not be that long.

It was a collection of Jeremiah’s words from God over a period of 23 years from 627 to 605 BC (36:2). The final year was 605 BC, so no oracles after that date would be included, specifically the material in chapters 21-24, 27-35, 36 and 37-44, which are mostly set during the reign of Zedekiah. This leaves most of chapters 1-20, chapter 25, and possibly some of the oracles to the nations (47-51).

It would be unlikely to include Jeremiah’s confessions, which were personal, and not for public reading. The action of burying the loincloth beyond the Euphrates (chapter 13) probably took place following the burning of the scroll, when Jeremiah was in hiding. There is also a word to King Jehoiachin in 597 BC (13:18).

The second scroll included some additions, perhaps including the original call of Jeremiah (ch 1) and the Jeremiah’s confessions. Other parts of the book we have today were added later.

End and summary of the first scroll (chapter 25)

Chapter 25 is set in the same year of the original writing of the scroll (605 BC) (25:1). And formed a summary of the original scroll and Jeremiah’s message (25:1-13). This probably formed the conclusion to the first scroll, as it is introduced in similar language to chapter 36. It acts a summary of Jeremiah’s message starting from his call to be a prophet in 627 BC. For 23 years he had brought the Word of the Lord persistently to the people of Judah and Jerusalem, but they have not listened (25:3). His call to the people to repent, and turn away from their idolatry has been ignored.

Because of this, God will bring an enemy from the north, led by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon who will utterly destroy the nation and take them into exile for seventy years (25:8-11). Only after the seventy years will God bring judgement on the king of Babylon. (25:12-13).

It should be noted that the nations (plural) will serve the king of Babylon for seventy years (25:11). This would suggest that the seventy years indicates the length of the Babylonian Empire, rather than the length of the exile of Judah. It is difficult to pinpoint an exact period of seventy years, as it is uncertain when it should begin and when it should end. However seventy years it the length of a lifespan.

End of the first scroll

It is likely that the first scroll ended at 25:13, where it mentions the words of Jeremiah being in a book. "I will bring upon that land all the words that I have uttered against it, everything written in this book. (25:13).

Oracles to the nations (chapters 46-51)

In the Greek Septuagint version (LXX) the oracles to the nations (our chapters 46-51) follow 25:13, but in a different order. 25:14 is omitted. 25:15 then follows.

Summary of the oracles to the nations (25:15-26)

This paragraph forms a summary of the oracles to the nations, perhaps added later. Many of the nations which receive messages are listed here. These are Egypt (ch 46), the Philistines (ch 47), Edom (49:7-22), Moab (ch 48), the Ammonites (46:1-6), Elam (49:34-39) and finally Babylon (ch 50-51), which will drink the cup of God’s wrath after the others.

Damascus, Kedar and Hazor are omitted, but receives an oracle (49:23-27, 49:28-33). Some other smaller nations are included in this list, but do not receive an oracle in chapters 46-51, including Uz, Dedan, Tema and Buz, as well as Tyre and Sidon and Media.

Distinct sections within the original scroll (1-25)

There are some shorter sections within the original scroll, which have their own headings:
1. "The word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah concerning the drought." (14:1)
2. Words to the house of the king of Judah (Zedekiah) (21:11)
3. "Concerning the prophets" (23:9)
Some of these were from a later time from the original scroll, particularly the word to Zedekiah, so must have been added later.

Three separate collections

It appears that there were originally three separate books or scrolls. Each of these has its own title:

1. The original scroll, written by Baruch (Chapters 1-25, Title: 1:1-3)

This is a very complex collection. Most of the oracles are from before 605, but some are from later.

2. The scroll of consolation (Chapters 30-33, Title 30:1-3)

This has two sections:
Oracles of restoration (ch 30-31)
Prose section where Jeremiah purchases a field as a prophetic act (ch 32-33)

3. The scroll of the oracles to the nations (Chapters 46-51, Title 46:1)

Later prose sections

This leaves the following portions in the modern version, where mostly later biographical material has been inserted, written in prose.

1. Conflicts between Jeremiah and the false prophets (Chapters 26-29). Chronology is mixed.

2. Events during the reigns of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah describing the sufferings of Jeremiah up until the Fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians (Chapters 34-39). Chronology is initially mixed (chapters 34-36), but then chronological (chapters 37-39).

3. Events following the Fall of Jerusalem, including the rule and assassination of Gedaliah and the flight to Egypt (chapters 40-44).

4. Jeremiah’s encouragement to Baruch (chapter 45), probably set at the time of the writing of the scroll (chapter 36).

5. Historical Appendix, showing the verification of Jeremiah's message, mostly taken from 2 Kings 24-25, with some additions. This is similar to the way chapters 36-39 of Isaiah also are included in the Book of Kings.

Possible way the book was put together

605 BC The original scroll, followed by the oracles to the nations (ch 1-25)

Material added following chapter 25

604 BC The burning of the original scroll, and its rewriting (ch 36)
Baruch assured of his safety (ch 45, same time as ch 36)
604 BC Consequences of temple sermon (ch 7) (ch 26)
The Rechabites in the early days of Jehoiakim (ch 35, same year as ch 7)
596 BC Jeremiah's trial leads on to conflicts with false prophets (ch 27-29)
Pashur and the false prophet (ch 26).
Letter to exiles and false prophets (ch 29)
A note of hope to the exiles leads on to
588 BC The Book of consolation (ch 30-31)
Jeremiah buys a field during the siege of Jerusalem, in the days of Zedekiah (ch 32-33)
Release of slaves, also during siege (ch 34)
586 BC The last days of Jerusalem (ch 37-44)
Describing what happened to Jeremiah during this time. In chronological order.
The encouragement to Baruch (ch 45).
This was probably originally at the end of the second scroll, but later pushed back
The oracles to nations (ch 46-51) were probably moved to end of the book as each portion was added following chapter
560 BC Historical appendix (ch 52)
This shows the verification of Jeremiah's message
It gives a note of hope as Jehoiachin is released and given hope for future
This was added much later, probably copied from 2 Kg 24-25.

Dated passages

1:1 627 BC Call of Jeremiah
7:1 609 BC Temple sermon
21:1 587 BC Words to Zedekiah
24:1 598 BC Baskets of figs
25:1 605 BC Summary of message
26:1 609 BC Trial after Temple sermon
27:1 594 BC Message of yoke bar
28:1 594 BC Message to Hananiah
29:1 598 BC Letter to exiles
32:1 588 BC Purchase of field
34:1 588 BC Message to Zedekiah
35:1 605 BC Faithful Rechabites
36:1 605 - 604 BC Burning the scroll
37:1 587 BC Zedekiah consults Jeremiah
39:1 586 BC Fall of Jerusalem
45:1 605 BC Word for Baruch
46:1 605 - 604 BC Oracle against Egypt
47:1 604 BC Oracles against Philistia

Passages during the reign of each king or ruler

Josiah ch 1-10, 18-20
Jehoiakim ch 11-17, 23, 25-26, 35-36, 45-48
Jehoiachin 31:15-27
Zedekiah ch 21-22, 24, 27-34, 37-39, 49-51
Gedaliah (governor) ch 40-41
After fleeing to Egypt ch 42-44

The Seventy Years in Babylon (25:11)

In this passage God predicts that the time of the exile will be seventy years.
"This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then after the seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, says the Lord, making their land an everlasting waste". (Jer 25:11-12).

In the second year of Darius (519 BC), the exile is also described as being for seventy years.
“The angel of the Lord said, ‘How long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have had indignation these seventy years?’" (Zech 1:12)

The question is whether the seventy is prophesying an exact number of years, or whether the seventy is a rounded number for a lifetime.

In the first year of Darius ruling over the Chaldeans (539 BC), Daniel was reading this passage in Jeremiah and understood that the seventy years was about to be finished, so prayed for restoration.
"Daniel perceived in the books the number of years which, according to the word of the Lord to Jeremiah the prophet, must pass before the end of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely seventy years." (Dan 9:2)

Attempts to determine the beginning and end of the seventy years

There are a number of different ways to calculate the length of the exile, none of which give an exact period of seventy years.

1. From the destruction of Jerusalem (587 BC) to the fall of Babylon and decree of Cyrus (539 BC) which is only 48 years.

2. From the first exile (605 BC) to the return with Zerubbabel (536 BC), giving 69 years.

3. From the first capture of Jerusalem (598 BC) to the fall of Babylon (539 BC), is only 59 years.

4. From the time the temple was destroyed (587 BC) to is reconstruction (520 or 515 BC), gives between 67 and 72 years.

5. Duration of the Babylonian Empire from the fall of Nineveh (612 BC) to the fall of Babylon (539 BC), gives 73 years.

6. Duration of Babylon as world power, from victory at Carchemish (605 BC) to the fall of Babylon (539), gives 66 years.

Seventy years as the period of the Babylonian Empire

The neo-Babylonian Empire was quite short-lived when compared with other ancient empires, lasting round about seventy years. A number of passages would suggest that seventy is referring to Babylon, rather than Judah.

God’s message was that, "these nations (plural) will serve the king of Babylon for 70 years" (Jer 25:11). Babylon will rule the nations for seventy years, not just Judah.

"All the nations shall serve him (Nebuchadnezzar) and his son (Nabonidus) and grandson (Belshazzar), until the time of his own land comes; then many nations and great kings shall make him their slave". (Jer 27:7)

"Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place." (Jer 29:10).

Related articles

Interpreting OT Prophets Dates of kings of Judah and Israel
The Assyrian empire The Babylonian empire
Introduction to the Book of Jeremiah Call of Jeremiah to be Prophet to the Nations (1:1-19)

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