Jeremiah: The Man and His Times

Dan G. Kent  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 24 - Fall 1981

If any prophet was ever the victim of a “bad rap,” it is Jeremiah. He received this “bad rap” when he was alive, and he continues to be misunderstood by people today.

What is the first thing we think of when we hear his name? Weeping prophet. Many people take this to mean he was a weak, sniveling person. Is that accurate or fair? How many references to weeping are in his book? Only three: 9:1; 13:17; and 14:17. Jeremiah wept no more than any other prophet. Besides, the familiar first verse of chapter 9 is a desire to be able to weep in a manner appropriate to the situation.

Jeremiah’s relentless message of doom has given us the adjective “jeremiad.” It is used frequently today, even by people who have little or no knowledge of the Bible. Another put down for poor Jeremiah. But is there any stigma in predicting doom when doom is on the way?

Who was this man so influential and yet so little understood? What was he like? What about the time in which the Lord called him to minister? We need to study his day as well as his book, because ”before one can hope to read the words of Israel’s prophets with understanding and appreciation, it is necessary first of all to gain at least a general knowledge of the times in which they lived and the situation to which they addressed themselves.”

Let’s examine what von Rad has called “the stations of Jeremiah’s cross.”

 

EARLY LIFE AND CALL, THROUGH 626

We know more about Jeremiah than any other Old Testament prophet -some would say more than any other Old Testament figure except David. James Phillip Hyatt has called him the outstanding personality of his age. And his age was one of turmoil and significance.

Jeremiah was probably born between 650 and 640, near the end of the disastrous reign of the cruel apostate, Manasseh (687-642). His home town was Anathoth, a short distance northeast of Jerusalem. Joshua 21:18 tells us that Anathoth was assigned to priests. Abiathar, who served as priest under David, took the wrong side in the struggle for the throne at the close of David’s reign. Solomon exiled him to Anathoth (1 Kings 2:26). Jeremiah may well have been a part of this priestly line that reached back to Eli and perhaps even to the family of Moses (1 Sam. 14:3; 22:20-21).

Jeremiah’s name means “Yahweh hurls.” This may indicate a loyalty to Yahweh on the part of his parents, or their hope that Yahweh would use him to counteract some of the tragic conditions of the day. He was thoroughly grounded in the Mosaic faith and the preaching of the prophets who had gone before him: Isaiah, Amos, and especially Hosea. He gave a life-long emphasis to the traditions of the exodus and the covenant, and the ethical implications of the covenant faith.

Jeremiah was also influenced by his rural surroundings. He was familiar with the capital city. It was easy to go there on feast days. However, he walked Jerusalem’s streets as if he were crossing a plowed field, or at least wished he were. His book abounds with references to nature.

When Jeremiah was born the Southern Kingdom of Judah had been a vassal of Assyria for a hundred years. And everyone understood that vassals were to give at least nominal recognition to their overlord’s gods. Manasseh not only submitted to this policy; he carried it out with enthusiasm (2 Kings 21:2-9). There were altars to the astral deities of Assyria even within the confines of the Temple.

Judah did not abandon Yahwism during this “time of thorough-going religious decay,” but there was every type of compromise and deterioration. The people worshiped Yahweh along with other gods, or else worshiped him by means of pagan practices. They forgot their covenant relationship, and they also forgot the covenant law which provided guidance for their relationships with others. Thus the disturbing growth of violence and injustice.

But it’s a long lane that doesn’t turn – and the turning point did come, even for the mighty Assyria. She had no sooner reached the peak of her power than the decline began. She had seriously overextended herself and was to pay a heavy price for the mistake. The long wars of conquest had exhausted her strength. Her subject peoples were dissatisfied and restless. And as Assyria lost her grip on her world, Judah became an independent country almost by default.

Assurbanipal was the last strong Assyrian ruler. His death was the beginning of the end. It set off a chain reaction of revolt. The Chaldean prince Nabopolassar (626-605) soon moved to found the Neo-Babylonian empire. From that time on Assyria had her back to the wall. He defeated the Assyrians in October of 626 and the next month took the throne of Babylon. Media joined the general uprising. Barbarian hordes were on the move near the mountains of the north. Egypt was rising from ashes several decades old.

Ammon (642-640) followed his father Manasseh to the throne in Judah but he was assassinated by members of his own family, presumably high officials. This plot was probably carried out by anti-Assyrian elements. Many must have felt that such a move was harsh and premature. At any rate, the assassins were executed and eight-year-old Josiah (640-609) placed on the throne.

Josiah’s advisers were careful about their still-powerful Assyrian overlord, but moves toward political and religious independence came as early as his eighth year as king. Four years later a true opportunity presented itself. Josiah extended his influence into some parts of the former Northern Kingdom of Israel, the provinces of Samaria and Galilee to the north, and perhaps even Gilead. Archaeological discoveries show that he controlled the Joppa area. He and his people wanted to restore the united kingdom of David.

For good and for ill, the political and religious fortunes of God’s people went hand in hand during this time. As he moved away from the Assyrian political embrace, Josiah also began a reform that was “by far the most thorough¬≠ going in Judah’s history.” (See 2 Chron. 34:1-7.) This continuing reform is so important, the Bible historians tell us little else about him.

Josiah is well known for his repair of the temple, which included removing traces of Assyrian and other foreign influences. He did away with vestiges of Canaanite Baal worship, Assyrian solar and astral worship, and such pagan practices as sacred prostitution, child sacrifice, and the consulting of mediums and wizards. He destroyed the high places and the groves. He demolished the ancient shrine at Bethel.

All of this was “Josiah’s declaration of independence from Assyria.” Josiah likely ceased to pay tribute, but Assyria in her weakened condition was unable to respond.

Jeremiah began his long and stormy ministry in 627, the thirteenth year of the young king (Jer. 1:4-19; 25:3), during the earliest of several stages of the reform. He was no more than twenty years of age (1:6). He recoiled from the ministry he faced. He was more like Moses than Isaiah. Whereas Isaiah volunteered, Yahweh had to draft Jeremiah.

In connection with his call Jeremiah saw the visions of the almond branch and the boiling pot tilting southward. He boldly predicted an imminent invasion from the north. Scythian hordes were endangering Judah from the north at that very time.

Apparently Jeremiah did not take an active part in the reform movement, but he did favor it (see 11:1-8). He was an obvious admirer of King Josiah (2 Chron. 32:25). He must have appreciated that noticeable improvement in public morality and the administration of justice.

 

EARLY MINISTRY TO JOSIAH’S DEATH, 626-609

The Chronicler informs us that Josiah’s reform moved through several distinct phases. The climax came when the law scroll was found in the temple during his eighteenth year, 622. The impetus of this discovery led to the completion of the work of purging all non-Yahwistic elements from the popular religion. Antagonistic priests were executed. The worship of Yahweh was centralized in the Temple. Dis¬≠ placed priests of Yahweh from the local shrines were invited to Join the Temple clergy in Jerusalem (2 Kings 23:8).

The Deuteronomic code became the basis for further national reform. It led to the completion and consolidation of all that Josiah had been attempting for years. It also led to a covenant renewal ceremony, as Jeremiah had been urging. Incidentally, his support of the centralizing reform may explain the plot against his life in his home town (11:21).

At some point along the way, Jeremiah began to have reservations about the reform. He approved of its goals and he appreciated its several accomplishments. However, he also came to question its depth. We must also wrestle with the question: how successful and genuine was Josiah’s reform?

The reform was widespread, but it was also shallow. It was too closely motivated by and tied in with feelings of nationalism. It involved too much of external ceremony and too little of inner spirit. It also created a false sense of peace which Jeremiah attacked in his famous Temple Sermon (see below). The people felt they had met Yahweh’s demands and were safe. They could conduct themselves any way they chose so long as they went through the motions of worship.

So, though the reform was externally successful, it did not really alter the course of the nation. There was much outer change but all too little inner commitment. Jeremiah must have studied the trends of the day with a sense of disappointment and foreboding.

These were Jeremiah’s silent years. Maybe he withdrew from public life because of satisfaction with the initial stages of the reform. His ministry was not so badly needed as before. Or perhaps he withdrew because of growing disillusionment with what he saw taking place. Or perhaps he was discredited in many people’s eyes because his predictions of the invasion from the north had not come true.

Meanwhile world affairs moved on apace and soon sucked Judah into their whirlpool. By 616 Nabopolassar was on the offensive, marching up the Euphrates. In 614 the Assyrian religious center of Ashur fell to the Medes. The Babylonians arrived too late to join in the attack on the city but in time to form an alliance with the victors. In 612 the political capital of Nineveh fell to these new allies. In 610 Haran was captured by the Babylonians and probably the Scythians. If Assurbanipal’s death had been the beginning of the end, the fall of Haran was the end of the end for Assyria.

Soon it was Egypt versus Babylon. And “between the upper and nether millstones of their rival ambitions Judah was caught and crushed.” Pharoah Necho II (610-594) of Egypt marched northward to help his former Assyrian enemies retake Haran. He wanted to preserve the balance of power, and he also wanted to carve out large slices of Syria and Palestine for himself.

Josiah was opposed to both of these purposes. He met Necho at Megiddo to try to prevent his marching across Judah’s territory and going to Assyria’s aid. And Necho did arrive in Haran too late to help. However, during the battle of Megiddo in 609 Josiah was killed. Perhaps he was captured and executed. The man many people call Judah’s greatest king was dead at age thirty-nine.

 

FROM JOSIAH’S DEATH TO THE BATTLE OF CARCHEMISH, 609-605

Some national leaders or perhaps the people generally made Josiah’s second son, Shallum or Jehoahaz, king in his father’s place. He lasted all of three months (2 Kings 23:31). Necho deposed him and deported him to Egypt. He made his older brother, Eliakim, king in his place. The fact that he changed his name to Jehoiakim (609-597) signified his absolute control over him and his people. He reduced Judah’s territory to its dimensions before Josiah’s expansion. He exacted heavy tribute. Jehoiakim raised this tribute by a head tax levied on all land-owners (2 Kings 23:35). The twenty years of independence were over.

It was a dark day, and Jehoiakim was not the one to lead the nation through it. He is one of those men around whom we pile unflattering adjectives as we attempt to describe him. Here is a sampling: pompous, oppressive, selfish, brutal, “a petty tyrant unfit to rule,” a political opportunist.

Jehoiakim used forced labor to build a new palace, finer than his father’s (Jer. 22: 13, 19). He cared nothing for spiritual values. In a short while pagan religious practices began to creep back into national life. Public morality deteriorated. Once again idols were set up in the Temple and children offered in sacrifice (7:30-31; 19:5).

Some Old Testament historians say that Josiah took David as his ideal, while Jehoiakim took Solomon. It might be more accurate to say that Jehoiakim embodied all the more infamous qualities of another ancestor, Rehoboam.

You might guess that Jeremiah and Jehoiakim did not get along. To Jeremiah’s dismay, no religious or political leader made any protest against the growing epidemic of paganism and social injustice. “It seemed to him that the nation, so proud in its possession of Yahweh’s law that it could no longer hear his prophetic word (ch. 8:8f), was plunging to ruin like a horse charging headlong into battle (vss. 4-7 ).”

It was during Jehoiakim’s first year on the throne, perhaps on his coronation day in 609, that Jeremiah preached his famous Temple Sermon. He rebuked the people for their superstitious trust in the Temple building. If your hearts aren’t right, he charged, it doesn’t matter how many times you repeat the formula, “This is the Temple of Yahweh.” “How… can people who murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and go after other gods imagine themselves to be safe merely by entering the temple of Yahweh?”

Because of his audacity Jeremiah was brought to trial at the New Gate of the Temple. He defended himself by claiming that he had spoken what Yahweh had told him and by repeating his message. The Temple priests and prophets opposed him, but the princes and people were on his side. They recalled the example of the prophet Micah a century before.

Scripture records no verdict from that trial. Ahikam, the son of Shaphan, took Jeremiah under his wing. Uriah, another prophet with a message similar to Jeremiah’s, fled to Egypt, was extradited (or kidnapped), taken back to Jerusalem, and executed on Jehoiakim’s order (26:20-23). Jehoiakim is the only king of Judah we know of who put a prophet to death.

 

FROM CARCHEMISH TO THE FIRST DEPORTATION, 605-597

Even a person of limited perception could see that a showdown was coming between Babylon and Egypt. It came at Carchemish on the upper Euphrates in the spring or summer of 605 (46:2). Crown prince Nebuchadnezzar led the victorious Babylonian forces. Nabopolassar died shortly afterwards. In 604 Nebuchadnezzar became king.

The year so pivotal in the history of that part of the world was also a turning point in the life of Jeremiah. It was a good time for Jeremiah to restate his message. For one thing, he was able to identify the long-expected foe from the north with Babylon. He dictated his oracles from the first twenty-three years of his ministry to Baruch, his companion and co-worker. Jeremiah was barred from the temple so that Baruch had to read the scroll to the crowds gathered there.

Certain royal officials advised Jeremiah and Baruch to go into hiding until they could gauge the king’s reaction. The reckless Jehoiakim took the scroll as it was being read to him, cut it into pieces, and burned it on a brazier. Jeremiah, in hiding, reproduced the scroll with many additions (36:9-32).

Some time between 604 and 602 Jehoiakim blithely transferred his allegiance from Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar. New master, same relationship! However, Jehoiakim proved to be an unwilling subject. He was inclined to look for any opportunity to rebel, and many leaders of Judah’s strong pro-Egypt party encouraged him in this inclination.

In 601 Nebuchadnezzar swept through Palestine to the border of Egypt. The foe from the north had arrived with a vengeance. There were heavy casualties for both major powers. Perhaps Egypt did not win, but neither did Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar had to return home and spend a year reorganizing his army. Jehoiakim misread this development and rebelled. Nebuchadnezzar was unable to respond immediately, but he did send bands of neighboring peoples (Chaldeans, Syrians, Moabites, and Ammonites) to raid Judah in an ancient form of guerilla warfare to whip him back into line (2 Kings 24: 1-2). He rebelled again in three to four years.

Nebuchadnezzar was in a position to personally punish the chronic rebel in December of 598 (25:1). Jehoiakim died during the siege of Jerusalem, probably from assassination. Those who put him to death may have judged that their Babylonian overlord would be lenient if the leader of the rebellion were removed.

And Nebuchadnezzar was surprisingly tolerant. Jehoiakim’s eighteen-year-old son, Jehoiachin (24:8), occupied the throne for three months before he had to surrender the city on March 16 of 597. Nebuchadnezzar packed him off to Babylon in chains along with his family and ten thousand of the premier leaders of the nation. He replaced him on the throne with Mattaniah, whose name he changed to Zedekiah (24:17). Again the name change probably marked the fact that the king and the kingdom existed at the will of Nebuchadnezzar.

Judah lost the Negeb to her southern neighbors. Her lower border shrank back up to the vicinity of Hebron. The Temple and the royal treasury were empty. The economy was crippled. The situation could hardly be worse… or could it?

 

FROM THE FIRST DEPORTATION TO THE FALL
OF JERUSALEM, 597-587

Zedekiah was mild-mannered and benevolent. He was also weak and vacillating. He lacked only two things, strength and will. He followed the advice of whichever counselor he saw last. And the nobles, who were the actual rulers of the crippled nation, were poorly trained, inexperienced, and rash. They were short-sighted, emotional, and pro-Egypt.

Many people still considered Jehoiachin to be the legitimate king. Many expected Babylon to suffer some sort of miraculous defeat and the exiles to return home. The popular prophets won the prize for wishful thinking. They said it would happen within two years. Imagine the shock when Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles (see Jer. 29). He advised them to settle down, build homes, and raise their families. They were to pray for the Babylonian regime (29:4-7). They would be in exile for a long time (29:10; see 25:11-12), and they were the hope of their nation.

Egypt was strong enough to encourage discontent among the nations subject to Babylon but not strong enough to actually help them. In 594 leaders from Edom, Moab, Ammon, and Phoenicia met in Jerusalem to talk of rebellion. Jeremiah put an ox yoke around his neck to symbolize submission to Babylon and dissuaded Zedekiah from participating in the foolish revolt.

However, in 588 a new Egyptian ruler, Apries (called Hophra in 44:30) began to organize a new expedition into Asia. His actions gave new hope to those subservient to Babylon. The revolt that broke out centered in Ammon and Judah.

In 588 Nebuchadnezzar again laid siege to Jerusalem (52:4). Jeremiah urged quick surrender. He said that Yahweh himself would fight against the city. He even advised the people to desert (21:8-10). The princes charged him with weakening the morale of the soldiers and the people.

When the pharoah’s armies advanced (37:5) , the siege was temporarily lifted, until Nebuchadnezzar was able to drive them back inside their borders. The embattled city took hope. Jeremiah continued to predict the worst (37:6-10). When he tried to get back to Anathoth on business he was arrested, beaten, and thrown into prison (37:11-15) on a charge of desertion. The princes demanded his death, and Zedekiah placed him at their mercy. (Doesn’t he remind you of Pontius Pilate?) They became exasperated at his appeals for surrender and once left him to die in the mire of a near-empty cistern. He was rescued and returned to confinement in the court of the guard (38:1-13).

Through all the difficulties, Zedekiah was at least friendly to Jeremiah. He wouldn’t do anything to help him, but he was friendly. He continued to counsel with the prophet, often in secret. More than once he voiced his plaintive question, “Is there any word from Yahweh?” He wanted to surrender as Jeremiah advised, but was afraid to (38:14-23). Jeremiah was true to his message, and paid the price of faithfulness with his continued confinement.

When the tragic fate of the city became obvious to all, Jeremiah continued to speak to the needs of the day by beginning to sound a note of hope. As next of kin he had the opportunity to purchase a cousin’s field in Anathoth, in territory under enemy control. He signed the deed before witnesses and placed it in a jar for safekeeping. It was a sign from Yahweh that the people would one day return. The fields of the countryside, then so blasted by war, would one day be valuable again (32:15).

The terrible siege lasted from January of 588 to August of 587. The destruction is summarized in 39:8. The walls were leveled, the Temple destroyed, and the city burned to the ground. Many people were killed. Jerusalem lay in such ruins that the seat of government was transferred to Mizpah.

 

THE FINAL YEARS

Jeremiah did not desert even after Jerusalem fell. Nebuchadnezzar ordered him released from prison. He gave him the option of migrating to Babylon with the exiles, but he chose to stay in Judah (40:1-6). He was a strange traitor, wasn’t he? He refused any reward for his so-called treason. He refused to live out his days in the ease and honor of Babylon.

And Judah needed all the help it could get. Almost all of the fortified cities were destroyed. Numbers had been killed in battle or executed afterwards. Many others had died of starvation and disease. The countryside was devastated.

Nebuchadnezzar made Judah a province of Babylon and appointed Gedeliah as governor. His grandfather, Shaphan, had been Josiah’s secretary of state (2 Kings 22:3). His father, Ahikam, had been a chief minister in Zedekiah’s cabinet and had once saved Jeremiah’s life (Jer. 26:24).

These were the most peaceful days Jeremiah ever knew. Unfortunately, they were all too short. The period is estimated to have extended from two months to two years or more. Gedeliah worked hard to restore the land, but the extremists saw him as a collaborator. Ishmael, a member of the royal house backed by the king of Ammon, assassinated him.

Ishmael escaped back to Ammon. Gedeliah’s friends feared reprisals from Nebuchadnezzar. They ignored Jeremiah’s objections and fled to Egypt, taking him and Baruch with them (43:1-7). Nebuchadnezzar’ s reprisals took the form of what is often called ‘a third deportation, in 582 (52:30).

And so ends the story of one of the most unique personalities of the Biblical or any other record. He is the Soren Kierkegaard of the Old Testament. One man has called him “the most human of the prophets.” In fact, John Bright has called him “well-nigh the type of Old Testament prophecy, the prophet par excellence.” He is still speaking to us today. He is a person well worth making the effort to know.

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