Background

Jeremiah’s name is given in two ways in the Hebrew text, and the English name comes from the shorter Hebrew form. The meaning of the name is uncertain and debated, with “The Lord exalts,” “The Lord throws,” and “The Lord appoints/establishes” as possibilities. It may reference the prophet himself (appointed and established despite widespread opposition or thrown into a hostile environment) or to the nations (lifted up and established or thrown down as the Lord decrees).1The introductory information on this page is adapted from Professor Emeritus Forrest Bivens’ course notes for Senior Old Testament Isagogics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Used with permission.

More is known about Jeremiah’s life than perhaps of any other Old Testament prophet. He was a son of Hilkiah, a priest at Anathoth (about three miles northeast of Jerusalem), though we have no evidence he ever served as a priest. He was called to serve as prophet at a relatively young age, perhaps about twenty years of age (Jer 1:1-6). This was in the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign (627/626 BC) at the same time Nabopolassar was establishing himself as king of Babylonia. He continued to serve during the reigns of Josiah, Jehoahaz (a.k.a. Shallum), Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin (a.k.a. Coniah), and Zedekiah, as well as after the fall of Jerusalem, during Gedaliah’s ill-fated governorship, and at Taphanhes in Egypt for an undisclosed length of time. His prophetic ministry thus continued over forty years. At God’s command Jeremiah never married or had children since only suffering was in store for that generation in Judah (Jer 16:1-4). The manner and date of his death are unknown, though rabbinic tradition says he was stoned to death in Egypt.

Because of the many biographical notices in the book and the personal “confessions” and “jeremiads” revealed, much has been said and written about the personality and character of the prophet. The title “the weeping prophet” is frequently ascribed to Jeremiah, but his tears are primarily a testimony to his love for his people rather than evidence of inner weakness and loneliness. We dare not deny his periodic jeremiads as he complained about his lot or condemned his adversaries, but we do not need to place too much emphasis on them. The later comparison made between him and Jesus (Mt 16:14) shows us that his reputation must have included the attribute of courage as well as tenderness. He remained what the Lord made him, “a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land—against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land” (Jer 1:18).

Evaluated by most standards of success, Jeremiah was an abysmal failure. Judged by God’s standards, however, he stood and stands tall. He remained faithful. Additionally, this comment of F. B. Huey, Jr. is worth remembering: “The great rulers of Jeremiah’s day – Ashurbanipal, Nebuchadnezzar, Neco, and Hophra – have largely been forgotten. Their influence is nil. Whereas Jeremiah’s name and influence remain because of his obedience to God’s will for him.”2Huey, F. B. Jeremiah, Lamentations. Vol. 16. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993. 24.

The prophets Habakkuk and Zephaniah (and possibly Nahum) were contemporaries of Jeremiah, as were Ezekiel and Daniel in the latter portion of his ministry. Though none of them mentions the others (outside of Daniel 9:2), it is most likely they were aware of each other’s ministry.

Authorship and Date

There is no reason to question Jeremiah’s authorship of the book. Aside from material in chapter 52, a historical appendix substantially the same as 2 Kings 24-25, all the events recorded in the book may be dated prior to 580 BC. From Jeremiah 36:1-4 we learn of the Lord’s command that Jeremiah write down all the prophecies that had been revealed to him from the days of Josiah up to that that time, namely, the fourth year of Jehoiakim’s reign (604 BC). This material would cover 23 or 24 years of his 40+ years of prophetic ministry. In that same chapter (Jer 36:4ff) we learn of the prophet’s use of the scribe Baruch. In the second writing of the book “many similar words were added” to the ones originally recorded (Jer 36:32). The present book contains prophecies that were given after that date, and it is quite possible Jeremiah used Baruch for these portions as well, since the scribe was taken to Egypt along with Jeremiah (Jer 43:6).

See also the Chronology of the Prophets and the Chronology of Latter Prophets and Intertestamental Period.

Purpose for Writing

The purpose and message of Jeremiah are well summarized in one verse in Jeremiah’s call: “See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer 1:10). These six verbs recur in key places throughout the book as the prophet proclaims the Lord’s word (See Jer 12:14-17, 18:7-10, 24:6, 31:28, 42:10, 45:4). As the passage indicates, Jeremiah was mostly a prophet of doom or warning but also one of hope.

Content

The content and overall theme of the book is a powerful reflection of Jeremiah’s period in history and his own character. These were times of misfortune and wholesale apostasy, while the prophet was sensitive and emotional. Major events rocked his world and that of his contemporaries, for example, the Battle of Megiddo (608 BC, with the loss of Judah’s last godly king), the Battle of Carchemish (605 BC, giving the Babylonian kingdom supremacy in western Asia), and the Destruction of Jerusalem (586 BC, with the deportation of the people to Babylon). Jeremiah stood almost alone in his effort to stem the tide of apostasy and proclaim the sovereignty and loving faithfulness of the Lord. His intense love for Judah, his fearlessness in his determination to get God’s words out, and his unpopularity and persecution were blended with his sensitive nature, his sorrow, and occasional fits of depression and discouragement bordering on bitterness. Still, he faithfully carried out his prophetic calling and remained a pious soul enduring godless times.

At the same time, Jeremiah was the bearer of magnificent promises of hope concerning the future of the remnant, and his messianic prophecies are among the most memorable in the Old Testament. He saw clearly the coming of the Righteous Branch from David’s line (Jer 23, 33) and highlighted forcefully the reality and nature of the New Covenant (Jer 31). The new covenant in Jeremiah 31 is generally considered his “foremost contribution to theology.” We especially notice that no terms of the covenant are given. This reminds us of the covenants of God with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3) and with David (2 Sam 7:13-14), and the New Testament (for example, Hebrews 8-10) confirms the truth: This is a repetition and highlighting of the covenant of grace already at work in God’s people.

Christ Connection

Even though Judah was unfaithful, God would keep his promise to send the Messiah through the line of Judah (Jer 23:5-6; 33:15-16). God sent the Messiah, Jesus, to redeem Judah, Jerusalem, and all people. Though King Herod would try to stop God’s plan by attempting to murder the boy Jesus just as Jeremiah prophesied (Jer 31:15; Mt 2:16-18), God would still bring about his new covenant through Jesus just as Jeremiah also prophesied (Jer 31:31-34; Lk 22:20). Now all who trust in Jesus for forgiveness will be saved and live in perfect safety with God forever.

Notable Passages

  • Jeremiah 1:4-10
  • Jeremiah 16:19-21
  • Jeremiah 17:5-6
  • Jeremiah 17:7-8
  • Jeremiah 17:9
  • Jeremiah 17:14
  • Jeremiah 23:1-6
  • Jeremiah 25:11
  • Jeremiah 29:11-13
  • Jeremiah 31:15
  • Jeremiah 31:31-34
  • Jeremiah 33:8
  • Jeremiah 33:15-16

Outline

Jeremiah is not only the longest book in the Old Testament but a defined structure and arrangement of the book is difficult to determine. Some have suggested that this disorder is meant to reflect the strife, uncertainty, and turmoil of Jeremiah’s lifetime and ministry. The book is not arranged in strict chronological order, nor is a strictly topical order followed.  However, the following outlines can be helpful:

  1. Introduction: Call of Jeremiah (Jer 1)
  2. Oracles of Judgment on Judah (Jer 2-20)
  3. Personal Confessions & Prophecies (Jer 21-35)
  4. Key Historical Events Recounted (Jer 36-45)
  5. Oracles of Judgment on Nations (Jer 46-51)
  6. Conclusion: Account of Jerusalem’s Fall (Jer 52)

or

  1. The Call of Jeremiah (Jer 1)
  2. Prophecies Prior to the Fall of Jerusalem (Jer 1-38)
  3. History & Prophecy of the People After the Fall of Jerusalem (Jer 39-45)
  4. Prophecies about the Nations (Jer 46-51)
  5. Appendix: Downfall & Deportation (Jer 52)

This outline by Hill & Walton reflects well the literary genres used by Jeremiah:

  1. The Call of Jeremiah (Jer 1)
  2. Book 1 of the Oracles of Jeremiah (Jer 2-25)
  3. Biographical Interlude 1 (Jer 26-29)
  4. Book 2: The Book of Consolation (Jer 30-31)
  5. Biographical Interlude 2 (Jer 32-45)
  6. Book 3: Oracles Against Nations (Jer 46-51)
  7. Historical Appendix: The Fall of Jerusalem (Jer 52)3Hill, Andrew E. and Walton, John H. A Survey of the Old Testament.

References   [ + ]

1. The introductory information on this page is adapted from Professor Emeritus Forrest Bivens’ course notes for Senior Old Testament Isagogics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Used with permission.
2. Huey, F. B. Jeremiah, Lamentations. Vol. 16. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993. 24.
3. Hill, Andrew E. and Walton, John H. A Survey of the Old Testament.