Lecture 11: Jeremiah
Course: Understanding the Old Testament
Isaiah dies about 680 B.C. or sometime shortly thereafter. The book of Jeremiah unfolds a few decades after that. Jeremiah is a prophet whose ministry extends from about 627 B.C. to after 587 B.C. In other words, Jeremiah becomes a prophet during the days of Josiah. You will recall he was the last righteous king of Judah and Josiah rules 640 to 609 B.C. So Jeremiah lives during this time. He also continues to work as a prophet after Josiah dies in 609 B.C., clear on down to the time that the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and put an end to Judah for the time being.
The book of Jeremiah thus unfolds against very turbulent times. Jeremiah himself becomes a refugee. So his book is not as orderly as Isaiah’s. It really operates like a book written during terrific upheaval by people who don’t have an easy life. Though I love the book of Jeremiah a great deal, I will not be able to describe it in the detail that I did Isaiah. This is not a sign of disrespect, rather just an understanding of the time I have available. But I must say, I have probably learned as much about living for God in difficult times from the book of Jeremiah as I have from any other piece of Scripture or any other kind of literature I have ever read.
Outline of Jeremiah
Jeremiah unfolds in five basic sections. These sections reflect the great emphases of prophecy. The first section is Jeremiah 1. In this chapter we have an introduction to the prophecy. It emphasizes for us who Jeremiah is, the times in which he lived and the message that he preached, the promises that God made to him. Jeremiah 2 to 29 stress Israel’s sin and the sins of the nations. Israel’s sin is seen as covenant breaking and the nation’s sin is seen as violence against one another. Jeremiah 30 to 33 stresses restoration and renewal. In the famous passage in Jeremiah 31, the prophet states that renewal will come through a new covenant that God will make with his people.
Jeremiah 34 to 51 emphasizes Israel and the nation’s punishment. Judah is destroyed by Babylon. But as we come toward the end of the book, Jeremiah 46 to 51 highlights the destruction that will come to the nations that sin against God. Jeremiah 52 brings the book to a conclusion by repeating really chapter 39, by repeating the material about the destruction of Jerusalem. So, Jeremiah 1 introduces the prophecy. Jeremiah 2 to 29 emphasizes Israel the nation’s sin. Jeremiah 30 to 33 highlights restoration of Israel and the nations. Jeremiah 34 to 51 outlines Israel and the nation’s punishment. And Jeremiah 52 gives us a conclusion to the book.
We must say that Jeremiah begins with warnings and ends with destruction. It is really like 1 and 2 Kings that way. But in the middle of the book Jeremiah, a man who has perhaps only two converts in the entire ministry that lasts for over 40 years – this man is the one God uses to express to us his promise of a new covenant with his people. It is this new covenant that we take as we speak of the New Testament – that is, the new covenant. And this is the new covenant that Christ says is founded and based on his blood. So Jeremiah has an incredibly important role to play in the Old Testament and in the Bible.
Introduction to the Prophecy (1)
In chapter 1 we are introduced to Jeremiah’s time, his message, and the challenges and promises that he will face. In chapter 1, verses 1-3, we are told that these are the words of Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, one of the priests. This was his profession, if you will, he was a priest and he lived in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin. So this means that he is from the smallest tribe of Israel, that is Benjamin, and that he lived about four miles away from Jerusalem, so he lived in the shadow of the temple.
Verse 2 says the Lord came to him in the days of Josiah, son of Ammon, king of Judah in the 13th year of his reign, that is 627 B.C. It also came in the days of Jehoiachin, the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah, the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month. These three verses tell us that he served from at least 627 B.C. until 587 B.C. and a little bit after.
As you know already, these are very tumultuous times, the time in which Judah finally declines and is destroyed by Babylon. These times include smaller numbers of Israelites being taken out of the land in 605 B.C. and 597 B.C., as we have already discussed in our study. These verses also tell us that Jeremiah, like Isaiah and the other prophets, speak the word of the Lord. They speak a message that has been revealed to them. It is not simply their own message. They have God’s revealed word through Moses and through the other prophets and in the histories and summaries. They also have God’s word revealed directly to them. They are his conduits of truth as we studied in our very first lesson. So this is the word that he preaches that comes from outside of himself. These are words that he writes that come from outside of himself.
God’s word comes to him in chapter 1, verses 4 and 5 and says, “Before I formed you in womb, I knew you and before you were born, I consecrated you. I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” So his teachings are to go, not just to Israel, but to all lands. I think of that call of Jeremiah when I’m doing these lectures, knowing that his words, Jeremiah’s words, God’s word through Jeremiah, will be explained by me and go out to many nations. Therefore, Jeremiah’s words are not just for Israel, they are for many other nations. And as we explain them in our different lands, we are fulfilling God’s word through Jeremiah.
At first, Jeremiah doesn’t believe he should be a prophet. He says, “I don’t know how to speak, I’m only a youth” and asked the Lord to excuse him. But the Lord says in verse 7, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’, for to all to whom I send you, you shall go and whatever I command, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” And he tells Jeremiah that he has put his words in his mouth, and he has set him this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and break down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant. In other words, to preach sin, judgment and renewal.
And judgment is coming, according to verses 11 and 16. God is sending disaster from the north, from Babylon, to judge Judah’s sins. And in verses 17 and 19 he tells the prophet, “You are going to face many difficulties.” In fact, he says, “I make you a fortified city, an iron pillar, bronze walls.” Why? Because the whole land, the kings, the officials, the priests, and the people will be against him. Verse 19 says, “They will fight against you, but they will not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the Lord, to deliver you.”
Jeremiah learns from the outset that he will have a very, very difficult life, that he is living in times in which there will not be much positive response. He will not be preaching to receptive hearers. In fact, he will have very little but opposition in his life. What he is promised is God’s presence and God’s pleasure at what he is doing. In a lot of ways, it is Jeremiah and the Lord against the world. Most of us are blessed to have other believers, perhaps believers in our home, believers in our churches. I know it is not this way for everyone. Some of you may have a very lonely life in the Lord. But if so, know that he is with you to deliver you.
Israel’s Sins and the Sins of the Nations (2–29)
In chapters 2 to 6, Jeremiah learns that the people have gone away from the Lord. At one time they were very devoted to the Lord; but now, they have walked away from him to serve other Gods and to follow other lords. What should Israel do? Several times in chapters 2 to 6, Jeremiah tells the people to repent. That is, to turn around from serving idols, to return to serving the Lord.
For example, in chapter 4, verses 1 to 4, “’If you return O Israel,’ declares the Lord, ‘to me you should return. If you remove your detestable things from my presence and do not waiver, and if you swear, ‘As the Lord lives’ in truth, in justice and in righteousness, then nations shall bless themselves in him and in him shall they glory. For thus says the Lord to the men of Judah and Jerusalem, ‘Break up your fallow ground and new not among thorns, circumcise yourselves to the Lord, remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah, inhabitants of Jerusalem, lest my wrath go forth like fire and burn with none to quench it because of the evil of your deeds.’”
James Leo Green says that Jeremiah uses some form of the word “repent” or the concept “repent” over 100 times in the book. It is his constant message, repent, return to the Lord, he will receive you, he will forgive you. When he tells them to circumcise their hearts reminds us of the book of Deuteronomy, which makes the heart the beginning point of all faith in God and all covenant keeping. We are to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength Deuteronomy 6:4 tells us. Here he says, “Return to the Lord. Turn away from idols.” But these chapters also tell us Jerusalem and Judah have refused to repent.
So in chapters 7 to 10 Jeremiah preaches to the people. He preaches at the temple in chapter 7. He preaches a sermon based on the Ten Commandments, reminding the people that their worship must be heartfelt, it must grow out of love for the Lord, out of repentance from their sins and out of a desire to love God and love one another. He asks them if they think they can steal and kill and destroy, and commit adultery and break the Ten Commandments, and yet come to worship without any intent to change.
Do they think they can be right with God? Simply coming to the ceremonies will not do. There must be a turning from sin to God and a living for him. Jeremiah reminds the people in chapter 10 that there are idols in the world, but they are not real gods, they have not created the heavens and the earth, Yahweh has done that. These idols have not redeemed Israel from Egypt, Yahweh has done that. So they should return to him. And yet, at the end of chapter 10, they have not done so.
In chapters 11 to 20 we see that the sin cycle continues. God sends drought, but the people do not return to him. Jeremiah preaches the word, yet they do not return to Yahweh. In these chapters Jeremiah himself gets utterly discouraged. He has good reason to be discouraged. In chapters 11 and 12 it tells us the people from his home town desire to kill him, make threats on his life. It tells us in chapters 13 and 14 that Jeremiah has to repent of his own sin and turn to the Lord. It tells us in chapters 19 and 20 that he feels like God has forced him to be a prophet and he has not had a choice.
God has asked a great deal of him. In chapter 16 it says that he is not to go near dead bodies, so he cannot even mourn the dead in his family. It says that he is not to marry, he cannot even have a wife or children because God says he is to be a symbol to the people, that it is better to have no family than to see them die and go into exile. Jeremiah is a man who has had much asked of him; and in chapter 20 he cries out of the bitterness of his soul, that the Lord has made him be a prophet.
Yet, in chapters 21 to 29 he continues. He is opposed by false prophets. He is threatened by the people. Yet he continues. Not only does he preach about sins of the day and the need to turn to God in repentance, but he also has one passage about the coming Messiah.
That is chapter 23, verses 1 to 8, where in speaking of the leaders of his day, he says, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, declares the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel concerning the shepherds who care for my people’, you scattered my flock and have driven them away and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the Lord. Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord. Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous branch and he shall reign as king and deal wisely and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days, Judah will be saved and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called, ‘the Lord is our righteousness.’”
So Jeremiah, like Isaiah, looks to a time when the Messiah will come. He will be the king. He will be righteous. He will bring righteousness to the people. He will be a just and righteous ruler. He will be from David’s lineage. And he will be the ideal shepherd, even as David was a careful shepherd for the sheep of his father and Yahweh’s people, Israel. Meanwhile, some of the people go into exile and Jeremiah ministers to them through letters. Again he preaches at the temple, warning the people in chapter 26 of the dangers of not repenting. False prophets oppose him in chapter 28 and 29; but the Lord always vindicates Jeremiah’s word.
So in chapters 2 to 29, to summarize a big segment of Scripture, Jeremiah learns of the people’s sin and of their spiritual adultery against God. He preaches to them in the temple of their need for repentance. He tells them of the coming Messiah. He stands up to the false prophets of the day. But as we are going to see as the book unfolds, he really only has one or two people who respond positively to his message. He remains a fairly lonely figure, but he is a very faithful individual.
Renewal through the New Covenant (30–33)
Chapters 30 to 33 give us material about renewal through the new covenant. Jeremiah begins in chapter 30 by talking about restoration and renewal for Israel and Judah. Like Isaiah, he calls Israel “God’s servant” in chapter 30 and verse 10, and offers comfort and encouragement to this servant, who has not always been faithful to the Lord. In chapter 31 Jeremiah teaches that the Lord will turn the people’s mourning into joy. At this time in their history the people have already had many losses. Babylon in effect rules their country. They have had exiles in 605 and 597, and they are suffering again. But “better days are coming,” Jeremiah writes.
In chapter 31, verse 31, he writes, “Behold the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is a covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord. 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.
“And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord’. They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord, for I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more. Thus says the Lord who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the seas so that its waves roar. The Lord of hosts is his name. If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the Lord, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever. Thus says the Lord, ‘If the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below can be explored, then I will cast off the offspring of Israel for all they have done,’ declares the Lord.”
Let’s unpack these verses just a little bit. Jeremiah is telling us that in days to come, that is days beyond his time, God will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. So the covenant will be with the same partners. God made a covenant with Abraham and with his children, the twelve tribes of Israel. The new covenant will begin with them.
But this covenant will be different. How will it be different? It won’t be like the covenant that he made with them when he brought them out of Egypt. Why? How will it be different? Verse 32 says that a problem with that covenant was that they broke it. I often hear people say that the old covenant was hard to keep, the old covenant was difficult, that’s why the people couldn’t keep it. The Old Testament does not teach that, neither do I believe does the New Testament teach that.
Rather, it says the Lord was good and gracious and kind, but his covenant partner, Israel, was unfaithful for the most part. There were always some faithful Israelites. We are studying the books, the writings of many of them, people like Isaiah and Jeremiah. But for the most part, the people were unfaithful. But the day is coming when things will be different. That is, the covenant partner will not break the covenant. According to verse 33, God will put his law within them, he will write in on their hearts, that the law will be in their hearts, the way God intended as he taught them in the book of Deuteronomy, to love him with all of their heart, soul, mind and strength. And God will be their God and they shall be his people, and they will all know him. Instead of there being some people who now him and some people who do not within the covenant group, as was always true of Israel, all the people in the covenant will be covenant keepers. They will all know God and they will all serve him, from the least to the greatest.
As we come to the New Testament, we see that Jesus establishes a new covenant in his blood with his disciples the night before he dies on the cross. He re-establishes that covenant with them after his resurrection. That the early church consists of all Jewish persons, who then go out to the ends of the world to share the Gospel. That the Gospel comes to Gentiles and they believe, and that many nations trusted in Christ by the end of the New Testament era.
And that today Christians exist on every continent of the earth and Christians know and serve God. They all know him. They all come to him through the Messiah, through Jesus, and he forgives their iniquity, remembers their sin no more. All of this started because God began afresh with Israel through Jesus. Beginning with Jewish disciples, with Israelites, he has built a multi-national group of believers. The new covenant is indeed glorious because it is made through Christ and through his blood. It is written on our hearts and we can be covenant keepers. Jeremiah 32 and 33 continue these promises, continue to stress that renewal will occur, that God will restore people to himself, that the future is bright.
Israel and the Nations’ Punishment (34–51)
But sadly, chapters 34 to 51 return to the days in which Jeremiah lived. He could look to the future and know that there would be great things ahead, but he still had to live in the present, that present was difficult. Jeremiah 34 and 35 introduced Judah’s downfall, by once again stating why the devastation approaches. As in earlier sections, direct prophet preaching and prophetic symbolic actions present the book’s message.
There are three episodes. In the first segment Jeremiah tells Zedekiah, Judah’s last ruler, he will be exiled to Babylon, though he will die in peace. Second, while the Jews battle the Babylonians, Zedekiah releases some Israelite slaves, only to enslave them again when times get better. Jeremiah condemns these actions. Third, Jeremiah compares the nations to the Rechabites, an unusual clan, in chapter 35. They are faithful to all the traditions of their fathers and yet Israel cannot be faithful to God. Thus, the nation suffers in comparison with the Rechabites.
In chapter 36 we see just how ingrained the sins and the stubbornness of the people got. Jeremiah sends a scroll to the king that has words of God on it. The scroll warns the king to repent. He thinks nothing of what Jeremiah says. In fact, as he reads it, he cuts off pieces of it and throws it in the fire in front of him. Thus, he despises the word of God. Eventually Jeremiah suffers further. He is imprisoned in chapter 37 and 38. Once delivered, he tells the king yet again that judgment is coming; and indeed in Jeremiah 39, judgment does come. The Babylonians invade the land, conquer Jerusalem and destroy it. The fall of Jerusalem was already explained to us and described in 2 Kings 25, is described again here in chapter 39 and then again in chapter 52.
Jeremiah remains on in Jerusalem, trying to minister to the people. But we find in chapters 40 to 44 that the people have not learned their lesson. They once again rebel against Babylon, killing the governors set up by the king of Babylon. To make matters worse, they ask Jeremiah what they should do, and he tells them to stay in the land, that all will be well. But a group of people flee the land and they take Jeremiah hostage with them to Egypt. It is almost as if they think if they have Jeremiah with them, God will not strike them down. Jeremiah tells them, ironically, they have fled to Egypt and they will be in Egypt when Babylon comes there.
In chapters 46 to 51 Jeremiah makes it clear that wicked nations will not prosper endlessly. God will judge Egypt. God will judge Babylon. All the great nations of the day will rise and fall. They are instruments in God’s hand as he shapes history. But the nations that sin shall fall.
Conclusion to the Prophecy (52)
Jeremiah 52 concludes this long and great book by reminding us of the destruction of Jerusalem. The summary of the prophet at the end of the book is that everything Jeremiah warned about did occur. The people continued to sin. God sent the Babylonians to destroy them. The people are now scattered to different parts of the world. The ones who are left in Judah are poor and disorganized and dispirited. We must be reminded again of Deuteronomy 30. That passage says that if God’s people, when they are in exile, when they have lost everything, if they will come to their senses and repent and turn to God, he will receive them, bring them back to the land, and bless them.
So, all is not lost, though everything is very bad at this point. We need to remember that God will send the Messiah. We need to remember that God will begin afresh with Israel through a new covenant. We need to remember that God will continue to keep his promises to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, and to David. God’s word cannot fail. The new covenant will come. The new day will dawn. God’s glory will be revealed and all will be well.
As Jeremiah ends, I think we have to have tremendous respect for him. He is a man who serves for a long time. He preaches hard messages. He pulls no punches as he explains to the people what God expects. He is a man who lives in crisis days, but he is a man who knows the future is bright. He is a man who knows that the new covenant is coming, that the Messiah is coming, that final judgment will fall and sin, death, sorrow will all cease. God will make all things right.
Like Isaiah, he sees that God is a God of hope. He also learns that God’s presence is enough. He stands as this tremendous witness to all of us, that no matter what we suffer as we serve God and as we are faithful to him, he sustains us. He gives us his protection. He gives us his word. He gives us what we need to serve him. The times may be extraordinarily difficult, but God remains faithful to his promises.