The book of Jeremiah recounts the life and ministry of the prophet Jeremiah. It tracks Jeremiah’s message that the Kingdom of Judah will fall to the Babylonians from the point before the exile when his ministry began to the fulfillment of his prophecy when the people went into captivity. Jeremiah, often called the prophet of doom, condemns the wickedness and idolatry of the people to whom he spoke and looks to a hopeful future beyond disaster when they could return to God once more. If you count its verses and words, Jeremiah is the longest book in the Bible. It's also one of the most complicated, making it very hard to follow what was happening when.
'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations. (Jeremiah 1.5)
Thus says the Lord: 'Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.' But they said, 'We will not walk in it.' (Jeremiah 6.16)
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. (Jeremiah 29.11)
Reading this book is quite difficult. It jumps about and is hard to follow. It is worth knowing this before you begin.
Jewish and Christian tradition both view Jeremiah as the author of this book. There can be no doubt that Jeremiah is the source of much of its contents, but the way the book jumps around suggests that it has been edited over a long period of time.
As a result many regard Jeremiah as the author of the words in the prophecies, but not necessarily as the editor of the final book. One possible candidate for the editing of the book is Baruch, mentioned in chapter 36 as gathering Jeremiah’s prophecies together.
Jeremiah was the son of a priest, Hilkiah, from the tribe of Benjamin. His ministry began around 626 BC when he began prophesying about the destruction of Jerusalem; the prophecy came true around 39 years later when the Babylonian exile began. Jeremiah’s message of doom led to numerous plots against his life (see for example 11.21–23; 38.1–13). Slightly oddly there is no mention of Jeremiah in 2 Kings or 2 Chronicles.
The late seventh and early sixth centuries BC were troubled times in Judah. The southern kingdom had survived the onslaught of the Assyrian army when Israel was destroyed in 722 BC. This bred confidence in some that God would save them no matter how they behaved. Part of Jeremiah’s role was to bring home to God’s people the message that they too could fall.
The earlier prophecies were composed largely before the exile took place and the evidence of Jeremiah is that these people felt happy and confident – perhaps too happy and too confident. They did not believe Jeremiah’s message, especially when there were other prophets who were prophesying peace when Jeremiah was prophesying doom. In other words the people felt fine but they shouldn’t have done.
The book itself was addressed to the people, by now in exile, who were asking why this catastrophe had befallen them. They would have been feeling distraught and despairing at the disaster that had hit the nation. In an odd way then, Jeremiah’s message of doom would have had an element of hope in it. This was a punishment but it would come to an end.
2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Isaiah (part of), Ezekiel
Prophecy. The three big prophetic books (Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel) are all similar in that they are mostly prophecy (in verse), but with elements of narrative history (in prose) woven around it.
1–25 The earliest and most important part of Jeremiah’s message
26–29 Some biographical accounts and Jeremiah’s encounter with other prophets
30–33 God’s promise of a new covenant
34–45 Jeremiah’s conversation with Zedekiah and the fall of Jerusalem
46–51 Divine punishment to the nations surrounding Israel
52 An appendix that recaps 2 Kings 24.18–25.30
There will be lots of names you will not know; don’t worry if you can’t place them all. The key ones are given below.
Assyria, Zion, Babylon, Moab, Edom, Mizpah, Gaza, Ai, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Bashan, Carmel, Chaldea, Damascus, Dan, Ekron, Ephraim, Euphrates, Gaza, Gibeon, Gomorrah, Jerusalem, Judah, Lachish, Lebanon, Media, Mizpah, Moab, Moresheth, Mount Carmel, Mount Tabor, Negeb, Ramah, Samaria, Sheba, Shechem, Shephelah, Shiloh, Sidon, Sodom, Tarshish, Tekoa, Teman, Tyre, Zion
Chaldeans, Josiah, Jehoiakim, Zedekiah, Baal, Baruch, Ammonites, Arameans, Benjamin, Gedaliah, Hezekiah, Isaac, Israel, Jeconiah, Jehoiakim, Jehoiakin, Josiah, Levites, Manasseh, Medes, Milcom, Moses, Nebuchadnezzar II, Nebuchadrezzar, Philistines, Zedekiah
Exile, exilic period, Altar, Ark of the Covenant, Baal, burnt offering, glean, Hebrew, idols, lampstand, priest, scribes, threshing floor, wadi
One of the key themes of this book is faithfulness and unfaithfulness. Look out for it as you read and ask yourself why faithfulness was such an important issue for Jeremiah.
Be aware that the book jumps around chronologically. Keep this in your mind and if you find yourself getting confused, see if recognising that the book has jumped in time helps.
God’s wrath runs all the way through the book. At first it can be a very off-putting theme, but ask yourself why God was angry with the people and see if this helps.
Jeremiah is a book of doom interwoven with hope. Hope could only come after the people recognised fully the dire state they were in. Is there anything to learn from this today?