Book of Jeremiah

I. The Composition of the Book. Jeremiah is a book of prophetic oracles or sermons, together with much autobiographical and historical material that gives the background of these oracles. Many modern scholars believe that the book contains substantial parts by later writers whose point of view differed markedly from the prophet’s. Believing that the critics have failed to prove their case for later editors, this article takes the traditional position that the oracles are essentially Jeremiah’s and that the narratives, if they were not dictated by the prophet (they are usually in the third person), were probably composed by Baruch.

Even though we may accept the fact that the book originated with Jeremiah, it is impossible to say how or when these materials were assembled in their present form. Plainly the book has gone through a number of editions, each succeeding one containing additional material. The account of the production of the first and second editions is told in Jer.36.1-Jer.36.32. Baruch, the secretary of the prophet, wrote down certain judgment oracles of the prophet (we do not know the exact contents) at his dictation. This scroll was contemptuously burned by King Jehoiakim; the prophet, therefore, dictated again to Baruch “all the words of the scroll that Jehoiakim king of Judah had burned in the fire. And many similar words were added to them” (Jer.36.32); i.e., a new and enlarged edition was produced. Obviously this was not our present book, which carries the history on for at least twenty more years. This account is of great interest in that it gives the only detailed OT description of the writing of a prophetic book. That Jeremiah should dictate to a secretary was normal for the times. Writing was a specialized skill, often restricted to a professional class. Learned men might be able to read but (like executives today) scorned to write. The document was probably written on a blank papyrus scroll imported from Egypt.

It has long been noted that the Book of Jeremiah in the Greek translation of the OT called the Septuagint (done in Egypt before 132 b.c.) is about one-eighth shorter than the Hebrew book, from which our English translations have been made. Further, the Septuagint omits many of the repetitions that are contained in the Hebrew copy and rearranges the material somewhat. Some scholars believe that the Greek Jeremiah was made from a different edition of the Hebrew text from the one on which our present text is based. It is not now possible to arrive at any certain conclusion about the relationship of the Septuagint to the Hebrew text, nor to know how either version came to its present condition.

The material contained in Jeremiah’s book is not arranged in chronological order. The outline given below indicates what seems to have been the purpose of the present arrangement—to set forth a group of oracles spoken against the Jewish nation, then to record selected events in the prophet’s ministry, then to give certain discourses of Jeremiah against foreign nations, and finally to include an account of the fall of Jerusalem. The record of Jerusalem’s fall had been given in Jer.39.1-Jer.39.18; the somewhat different account at the end of the book (Jer.52.1-Jer.52.34) is practically identical to 2Kgs.24.1-2Kgs.24.20-2Kgs.25.1-2Kgs.25.30 and may have been added from that source to give a climactic conclusion to Jeremiah’s oracles.

II. Outline

I. Jeremiah’s Oracles Against the Theocracy, 1:1-25:38.

A. The prophet’s call, 1:1-19.

B. Reproofs and admonitions, mostly from the time of Josiah, 2:1-20:18.

C. Later prophecies, 21:1-25:38.

II. Events in the Life of Jeremiah, 26:1-45:5.

A. The temple sermon and Jeremiah’s arrest, 26:1-24.

B. The yoke of Babylon, 27:1-29:32.

C. The book of consolation, 30:1-33:26.

D. Some of Jeremiah’s experiences before Jerusalem fell, 34:1-36:32.

E. Jeremiah during the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, 37:1-39:18.

F. The last years of Jeremiah, 40:1-45:5.

III. Jeremiah’s Oracles Against Foreign Nations, 46:1-51:64.

A. Against Egypt, 46:1-28.

B. Against the Philistines, 47:1-7.

C. Against Moab, 48:1-47.

D. Against the Ammonites, 49:1-6.

E. Against Edom, 49:7-22.

F. Against Damascus, 49:23-27.

G. Against Kedar and Hazor, 49:28-33.

H. Against Elam, 49:34-39.

I. Against Babylon, 50:1-51:64.

IV. Appendix: The Fall of Jerusalem and Related Events, 52:1-34.

III. Chronological Order of the Book. In spite of the fact that the book is not at all in chronological order, it is possible to date many of its sections because they contain chronological notations. These sections are here listed with their dates.

1. In the Reign of Josiah.

In the thirteenth year, ch. 1.

Later in this reign, chs. 2-6.

Possibly much of chs. 7-20 (except material specifically listed below) is to be dated to Josiah’s reign.

2. In the Reign of Jehoahaz.

None.

3. In the Reign of Jehoiakim.

Early in this reign, ch. 26 and probably 7:1-8:3; 22:1-23.

In the fourth year, chs. 25; 36; 45; 46:1-12.

After the fourth year, ch. 35.

4. In the Reign of Jehoiachin.

22:24-30; possibly ch. 14.

5. In the Reign of Zedekiah.

In the beginning, chs. 24; 49:34-39.

In the fourth year, chs. 27-28; 51:59-64.

In unnoted years, chs. 21; 29.

During the early part of the siege, ch. 34.

During the interruption of the siege, ch. 37.

During the resumption of the siege, chs. 32; 33; 38; 39:15-18.

6. In Judah After the Fall of Jerusalem.

39:1-4; 40:1-43:7.

7. In Egypt After Jeremiah Was Taken There.

43:8-44:30.

IV. Jeremiah and the Lachish Letters. Lachish, in the Judean foothills, was one of a series of fortresses for the defense of Jerusalem against attack from the Mediterranean Plain. It was one of the last cities to fall to the Babylonians prior to the final taking and destruction of Jerusalem (Jer.34.7). An interesting light has been shed on these last hectic days of Judah’s history by a discovery in the ruins of ancient Lachish. When the city was excavated (in a.d. 1932-1938) twenty-one letters written on broken pieces of pottery were found in a guard room of the outer gate. They were written in the ancient Hebrew script with carbon iron ink at the time of Jeremiah, when Lachish was undergoing its final siege.

Many of these letters were written by a certain Hoshaiah, who was a military officer at some outpost near Lachish, to Yaosh, the commander of Lachish. Their language is very much like that of the Book of Jeremiah. Hoshaiah is constantly defending himself to his superior. Could it be that he was under suspicion of being ready to go over to the Babylonians? Once he describes one of the princes in words almost like those that the princes used against Jeremiah (Jer.38.4). There is mention of “the prophet” whose message is “Beware.” Is this a reference to Jeremiah? We cannot be sure. According to the Book of Jeremiah, there were many prophets in that troubled time. Another letter mentions the inability of Hoshaiah to see the smoke signals of Azekah, although those of Lachish were still visible. Perhaps Azekah had already fallen (Jer.34.7). Although the specific meaning of many of the references of these letters eludes us, they do throw a vivid light on the disturbed and fearful days just prior to the fall of the Judean kingdom, the days of Jeremiah. A translation of these letters may be found in Pritchard.

Bibliography: James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the OT, 1955; H. Cunliffe-Jones, The Book of Jeremiah: Introduction and Commentary, 1960; John Bright, Jeremiah (AB), 1965; R. K. Harrison, Jeremiah and Lamentations (TOTC), 1973; J. A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah (NIC), 1980.——JBG