Introduction to Jeremiah
Jeremiah, the last of the pre-exilic writing prophets, is often called “the weeping prophet,” because of his impassioned pleas to his people and their leaders to repent, repeatedly warning them of severe judgment and exile if they did not. His book is longer than any other of the prophetic books (though Isaiah has more chapters).
The prophetic ministry of Jeremiah extended over some forty or more years, under the reigns of Judah’s last five kings—Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin (or Jeconiah, also Coniah), and Zedekiah. Josiah was a godly king who had led his people in a great revival (though, as it turned out, somewhat superficial and short-lived). Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah were sons of Josiah, whereas Jehoiachin was a son of Jehoiakim. Each of these four kings “did that which was evil in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his fathers had done” (II Kings 23:32,37; 24:9,19). The reforms of Josiah were forgotten soon after his death, with both kings and people quickly returning to the pagan ways of the fifty-five year reign of wicked king Manasseh, grandfather of Josiah. Amon, Josiah’s father, reigned only two years before he was assassinated (II Kings 21:1-2,19-20,23). Most of Jeremiah’s warnings were necessitated by the evil ways of these last four kings, including his great prophecy of the impending seventy year captivity in Babylon (II Chronicles 36:21; Jeremiah 25:9-12; 29:10).
As to Jeremiah himself, he was of the priestly tribe of Levi, son of Hilkiah the priest, born in Anathoth. This city, assigned by Joshua to the tribe of Benjamin (Joshua 21:18), was probably the same as modern Anata, about three miles northeast of Jerusalem. Jeremiah was called to his prophetic ministry in the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign (Jeremiah 1:2). Josiah was king for eighteen more years, whereas the last four kings only ruled a total of twenty-two or twenty-three years. Actually Jeremiah continued his ministry for an uncertain additional period in Egypt, among those of the people that fled there even as most of the Jews were being carried away to Babylon (Jeremiah 43, 44). No one knows for certain when or where he died, although tradition has it that he was slain by the Jewish refugees to whom he still tried to preach in Egypt.
The times of Jeremiah were tumultuous. The great nations of the time—Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia especially—were fighting for supremacy, and Judah often was involved, situated in their midst. Eventually Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar defeated Assyria, and Egypt retreated, so that Babylon became the world’s dominant empire for some fifty years. All of these nations were very wicked themselves, so that, even though God used them to punish Israel and Judah, their time was coming. Among the prophecies of Jeremiah were predictions of ultimate judgment on Egypt, Philistia, Tyre, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Syria, Hazor, Elam, and especially Babylon. Assyria had already been defeated by this time (Jeremiah 46–51).
On the other hand, there are many wonderful Messianic prophecies in Jeremiah, promising ultimate deliverance and restoration of Israel in the future Messianic kingdom. In Jeremiah is the first revelation of the coming “new covenant” which God would make with Israel as well as Judah (Jeremiah 31:31-37) and which would eventually encompass all of God’s people in every age (Hebrews 8:6–10:25).