Jeremiah lived at a turning point in the history of Israel. The northern kingdom had been conquered by the Assyrians in 721 BCE; the elite classes were taken into exile, the land was repopulated with people from other nations (2 Kings 17). The southern kingdom had been invaded by the Assyrians in 701 BCE, but they were repelled (2 Kings 18:13–19:37). King Hezekiah made a pact with the Babylonians, but the prophet Isaiah warned that the nation would eventually fall to the Babylonians (2 Kings 20:12–19). Babylon conquered Assyria in 607 BCE and pressed hard to the south; the southern kingdom fell in 587 BCE (2 Kings 24–25) and “Judah went into exile out of its land” (2 Ki 25:21).
Jeremiah lived in the latter years of the southern kingdom, through into the time of exile—although personally, he was sent into exile in Egypt, even though most of his fellow Judahites were taken to Babylon. The difficult experiences of Jeremiah as a prophet colour many of his pronouncements. As the book moves on from the poetic oracles of chapters 1–25, to a series of prose narratives in chapters 26–45, some key events in the life of Jeremiah are reported.
First, we learn that Jeremiah is called to “stand in the court of the Lord’s house and speak to all the cities of Judah that come to worship in the house of the Lord; speak to them all the words that I command you; do not hold back a word” (Jer 26:2). His message is about their failure to walk in the law that God had given them (remembering that the discovery of “the book of the law” and the subsequent reforms under Josiah had taken place just a couple of decades earlier. The response from the ruling class is not positive—in fact, Jeremiah is threatened with death (26:7–11). He argues his way out of this sentence (26:12–24), but the threat of death will return in a later chapter.
To dramatise the judgement placed on Israel, as well the surrounding nations of Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre, and Sidon, Jeremiah wears a yoke (27:1–22), telling the people of Judah to “bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him and his people, and live” (27:12). Rather than seeing the foreign power as an enemy, Jeremiah exhorts the people to submit them, in what will be a hard, but not permanent, arrangement. This marks a change in theology that we will see also in Deutero-Isaiah, where the foreign power is seen to be an agent of God.
Accordingly, he sends a letter from the Lord “from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (29:1), instructing them to “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce; take wives and have sons and daughters; … multiply there, and do not decrease; seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (29:5–7). Life goes on in exile; God has not abandoned the people.
In the midst of his despair, Jeremiah sees hope: “the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, says the Lord, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their ancestors and they shall take possession of it” (30:3). In this context, Jeremiah indicates that the Lord “will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (31:31–34).
The renewal of the covenant was not a new idea in the story of Israel. God had entered into covenants with Abraham, the father of the nation (Gen 15:1–21) and before that, in the story of Noah, with “you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you … that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood” (Gen 9:8–11). The covenant given to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exod 19:1–6), accompanied by the giving of the law (Exod 20:1–23:33), is sealed in a ceremony by “the blood of the covenant” (Exod 24:1–8).
The covenant with the people that Moses brokered is renewed after the infamous incident of the golden bull (Exod 34:10–28), then under Joshua at Gilgal, as the people enter the land of Canaan after their decades of wilderness wandering (Josh 4:1–24). It is renewed again in the time of King Josiah, after the discovery of “a book of the law” and his consultation with the prophet Huldah (2 Chron 34:29–33), and it will be renewed yet again after the exiled people of Judah return to the land under Nehemiah, when Ezra read from “the book of the law” for a full day (Neh 7:73b—8:12) amd the leaders of the people made “a firm commitment in writing … in a sealed document” which they signed (Neh 9:38–10:39).
However, the particular expression of renewal that Jeremiah articulates will prove to be critical for the way that later writers portray the covenant renewal undertaken by Jesus of Nazareth (1 Cor 11:25; Luke 22:20; 2 Cor 3:6–18; Heb 8:8–12). Especially significant is the claim that this renewed covenant “will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke” (Jer 31:32), for God “will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (31:33). It is a covenant which has “the forgiveness of sins” at its heart (31:34)— precisely what is said of the “new covenant” effected by Jesus (Matt 26:28; and see Acts 5:31; 10:43; 13:38; 26:18).
To signal his confidence in this promised return, Jeremiah buys a field in his hometown of Anathoth from his cousin Hanamel (32:1–15). The narrator notes that “the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him” (32:2–3). Nevertheless, the purchase serves to provide assurance that the exiled people will indeed return to the land of Israel; “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (32:15).
Jeremiah exhorts the people to “give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” (33:11), because in the places laid waste by the Babylonians, “in all its towns there shall again be pasture for shepherds resting their flocks … flocks shall again pass under the hands of the one who counts them, says the Lord” (33:12–13). As the people return to the land, the Lord “will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (33:15). The title “Son of David” is later applied to Jesus in three Gospels (Mark 10:47–48; Matt 1:1; 12:23; 15:22; 21:9, 15; Luke 18:38–39).
As Jeremiah was “prevented from entering the house of the Lord” (36:5), he dictated his prophecies to a scribe named Baruch (36:4) and instructed Baruch to “read the words of the Lord from the scroll that you have written at my dictation” (36:6). Baruch does so; in response, King Jehoiakim burns the scroll (36:20–26), so Jeremiah repeated the process with Baruch (36:32). Subsequently, the prophet was imprisoned in the court of the guard (37:11–21) and then in a cistern (38:1–6), before being rescued from the cistern, on the king’s orders, by Ebed-melech the Ethiopian (38:7–13).
Jeremiah informs King Zedekiah of the imminent capture of Jerusalem (38:14–28); this is duly narrated (39:1–10) and Jeremiah is set free by King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon (39:11–18). After speaking further oracles, the prophet is sent into exile in Egypt (43:1–7), where he continues to berate the exiles for their idolatry. “I am going to watch over them for harm and not for good”, the Lord asserts; “all the people of Judah who are in the land of Egypt shall perish by the sword and by famine, until not one is left” (44:27).
The final chapter in this narrative sequence reports the anguish of the Lord: “Woe is me! The Lord has added sorrow to my pain; I am weary with my groaning, and I find no rest”; and then the judgement of the Lord: “I am going to break down what I have built, and pluck up what I have planted—that is, the whole land … I am going to bring disaster upon all flesh, says the Lord” (45:1–5).
The book concludes with a series of prophecies against foreign nations in chapters 46–51 (the Egyptians, Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites, and Edomites, then Damascus, Kedor, Hazor, Elam, and Babylon itself), before ending with an historical appendix telling of the capture of Jersualem (chapter 52), which is drawn largely from 2 Kings 24:18—25:30.