Continuing my series of blogs on the prophets: today, Jeremiah, who was called to be a prophet at an early age (Jer 1:4–10). Some commentators consider him to be in his early 20s, while others note that the distinctive Hebrew word used in this passage indicates he was in his teens. When he heard God declare to him, “I appointed you a prophet to the nations”, the NRSV translation says that the young man replied, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (1:6).
Actually, when they say he replied, “Ah”, he was using a Hebrew word that actually means “alas” or “woe is me” (see also 4:10; 14:13: 32:17; and also Joel 1:15). Strong’s Concordance says this is “a primitive word expressing pain”—so, more like “ouch!!!” So perhaps it’s better to think of his response as more like “oh no, oh no, oh nooooo—I couldn’t possibly do that! no way at all!!”. Jeremiah just did not want this gig at all. See my sermon on this passage at
Yet Jeremiah faithfully carried out the task committed to him; it is thought that he was active from the mid-620s in Judah, through into the time of exile in Babylon, from 587 BCE onwards—that is, over four decades—although Jeremiah himself was exiled, not into Babylon, but into Egypt (Jer 43:1–7).
The task he was given when called to be a prophet was to declare the coming judgment of God on the people of Israel, for continuing to ignore their covenant commitments. The Lord tells him, “I will utter my judgments against them, for all their wickedness in forsaking me; they have made offerings to other gods, and worshiped the works of their own hands” (1:16). As encouragement, he urges the young man to “gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you” (1:17).
Jeremiah proclaims both God’s judgement and God’s hope for repentance by the people. This dual focus appears in God’s instructions to Jeremiah “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow” but also “to build and to plant” (1:10). In his later years, in solidarity with the people who have been “plucked up” into exile in Babylon, Jeremiah urges his people to make the best of their time in exile: “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce … seek the welfare of the city” (29:5, 7). Many centuries later, a clear allusion to that same oracle is made by Simeon as he meets the infant Jesus: “this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34).
The overall progression of the book is chronological, as it begins with the call of Jeremiah (ch.1) and ends with an account of the destruction of Jerusalem (ch.52). Nevertheless, the arrangement of the book is more topical overall, rather than chronological, since oracles on the same topic are grouped together even though they may have been delivered at different times. There are various theories as to how the book was put together; most scholars believe that someone after the lifetime of Jeremiah has brought together material from collections that were originally separate.
Indeed, A.R. Pete Diamond concludes that “like it or not, we have no direct access to the historical figure of Jeremiah or his cultural matrix”; we have “interpretative representations rather than raw cultural transcripts”, and thus he argues that the way we read this book should be informed by insights from contemporary literary theory, and especially by reading this book alongside the book of Deuteronomy, as it offers a counterpoint to the Deuteronomic view of “the myth of Israel and its patron deity, Yahweh” (Jeremiah, pp. 544–545 in the Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible, 2003). Whereas Deuteronomy advocates a nationalistic God, Jeremiah conceives of an international involvement of Israel’s God.
The chronological disjunctures can be seen when we trace the references to various kings of Judah: in order, we have Josiah in 627 BCE (Jer 1:2), jumping later to Zedekiah in 587 BCE (21:1), then back earlier to Shallum (i.e. Jehoahaz) in 609 BCE (22:11), Jehoiakim from 609 to 598 BCE (22:18), and Jeconiah in 597 BCE (22:24), before returning to Zedekiah in 597 BCE (24:8) then back even earlier to Jehoiakim in April 604 BCE, “the first year of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon” (25:1)—and then further haphazard leaps between Zedekiah (chs. 27, 32-34, 37–38, and 51:59) and Jehoiakim (chs. 26, 35, 45) as well as the period in 587 after the fall of Jerusalem when Gedaliah was Governor (chs. 40–44). It is certainly an erratic trajectory if we plot the historical landmarks!
The topical arrangement is easier to trace: 25 chapters of prophecies in poetic form about Israel, 20 chapters of narrative prose, and six chapters of prophecies against foreign nations. Early in the opening chapters, as Jeremiah prophesies against Israel, he reports that God muses, “you have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me?” (3:1). The idolatry and injustices practised by the people of Israel have caused God concern. Throughout the poetry of the prophetic oracles in chapters 1—25, God cajoles, encourages, warns, and threatens the people.
“I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful” (3:13), the Lord says; then Jeremiah instructs the people, “put on sackcloth, lament and wail: ‘the fierce anger of the Lord has not turned away from us’” (4:8). Next, God says, “I am now making my words in your mouth a fire, and this people wood, and the fire shall devour them” (5:14), and then, “take warning, O Jerusalem, or I shall turn from you in disgust, and make you a desolation, an uninhabited land” (6:8), and so on, for 25 chapters.
Whilst God laments the “perpetual backsliding” of the people, who “have held fast to deceit, they have refused to return” (8:5), the prophet laments, “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick … is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (8:18–22). As Jeremiah denounces their worship of idols (10:1–16) and breaches of the covenant (11:1–17), his life is placed in danger: “I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter, and I did not know it was against me that they devised schemes” (11:18–20).
Others prophesying are condemned by God; “they are prophesying lies in my name; I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them; they are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds” (14:13–18). The prophet dramatises his message of divine judgement on the people with reference to the familiar image of the potter, shaping and moulding the clay (18:1–11), a broken earthenware jug (19:1–15), two baskets of figs (one bunch good, the other inedible; 24:1–10), and “the cup of the wine of wrath” which, when “all the nations to whom I send you drink it, they shall drink and stagger and go out of their minds because of the sword that I am sending among them” (25:15–38).
The punishment that is coming to Israel is a cause of great grief for Jeremiah, and so he is sometimes known as “the weeping prophet” (see 9:1; 13:17; 22:10). He doesn’t sit easy with the terrors associated with the execution of God’s justice in the nation—perhaps we can resonate with the angst of this ancient figure?
The most common criticism that I hear of Old Testament passages is about the terrible violence of the vengeful God—an element of Israelite religion that seems quite at odds with so much of modern sensibilities. Jeremiah gives a clear and potent expression to this image, when he has Jeremiah report that God says, “I myself will fight against you with outstretched hand and mighty arm, in anger, in fury, and in great wrath. And I will strike down the inhabitants of this city, both human beings and animals; they shall die of a great pestilence” (21:5–6).
A number of passages in the first main section of this book are seen to reflect this angst about a powerful, vengeful God—they are often called “Jeremiah’s confessions”, as he confesses his pain and grief to God, and prays for a release from his condition (see 11:18–23; 12:1–6; 15:10–14; 15:15–21; 17:14–18; 18:18–23; 20:7–12; 20:14–18). These “confessions” share stylistic and thematic similarities with the “psalms of lament”, such as Pss 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 85, 86, and 90 (psalms of communal lament), and Pss 3, 6, 13, 22, 25, 31, 71, 77, 86, and 142 (psalms of individual lament).
“Woe is me”, or “woe to us”, is a common phrase in Jeremiah’s oracles (4:13; 4:31; 6:4; 10:19; 13:27; 15:10; 22:13; 23:1; 45:3; 48:46). It is the same term that we found in Isaiah’s call (Isa 6:5) and oracles (Isa 24:16), Hosea’s declarations (7:13; 9:12), Micah’s prophecies (Mic 7:1), and Ezekiel’s utterances (Ezek 13:18; 16:23; 24:6, 9). All lament the imposition of divine justice in ways that wreak havoc amongst the people.
Jeremiah conveys the specific timetable of God’s judgement in explicit announcements: first, “the whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years” (25:11); then, “after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, making the land an everlasting waste” (25:12).
The result of this is conveyed in another oracle, when God declares, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply” (23:3). The end result, it seems, will be positive; but the process of journeying to that desired end will be difficult, to say the least.
The seventy years noted in these prophecies (25:11–12) has occasioned some debate amongst the scholars: was this a prediction of exact years, an approximation of the length of time of the exile, or a symbolic statement, typical of biblical numbers, which should not be taken literally? (such as, 40 years means “a long time”, 1,000 means “very many”, seven means “complete” or “fulfilled”, and so on).
Many conservative commentators (and especially Seven Day Adventists) who take biblical texts literally, spend much time and ink in wrestling with this issue! One such commentary or, for instance, notes that, if this is an exact period of 70 years, it could be: (a) from the initial attack of Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon against Jerusalem in 605 BCE, to the return of the Jews under Cyrus of Persia in 536 BCE; or (b) from the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE to the completion of the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem in 516 BCE.
He continues by noting that some scholars claim that “these years were in actuality shortened by God’s mercy, since when one works backwards from 539 B.C. (the occasion of the capture of Babylon), it is obvious that none of the traditional starting dates—605 B.C., 597 B.C., or 587/86 B.C.—provides a time period of exactly seventy years”. Some other suggestions include that “these years represent a lifetime, since Ps 90:10 presents seventy years as a normal human lifespan”, or that “the expression [is] simply a term that referred to the period of desolation for a nation”, as it is used in that way in an Esarhaddon inscription concerning Babylon. (Ross E. Winkle, in an article in Andrews University Seminary Studies, 1987, vol. 25 no. 2, pp. 201–202)
Jeremiah invites our consideration in a number of ways. He continues the prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power. He begins a development which sees the role of Israel’s God as stretching beyond the bounds of Israel. He expresses personal emotional angst with regard to the aggressive, power-based actions of God. And, as we shall see next week,