Jeremiah was “the son of Hilkiah, of the priests that were in Anahoth, in the land of Benjamin.” Anahoth was a city that belonged to the priests. It was situated approximately three miles north-east from Jerusalem. It is not probable, as some have thought, that Jeremiah’s father was the same as Hilkiah the high priest in the time of Josiah—the king that found the lost book of the law. Had this been the case, the fact would undoubtedly have been mentioned. Jeremiah prophesied under Josiah and his four descendants,—the last kings of Judah. He was contemporary with Daniel and Ezekiel, who were prophesying in Babylon, while he was delivering his messages in Jerusalem; also with Habakkuk, Zephaniah and Obadiah. He commenced his prophetic labors in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah. At this time he was but a youth. So, when the call came to him, he was afraid and said, “Ah, Lord God! behold I cannot speak, for I am a child.” The Lord replied by giving him a solemn commission, “Say not, I am a child: for thou shalt go to all that I will send thee, and whatsoever I command thee, thou shalt speak.” We do not hear much of Jeremiah during the reign of the god-fearing Josiah. Huldah was the prophetess to whom this king turned, whenever he had occasion to inquire of the Lord. It cannot be doubted, however, that Jeremiah supported by every method in his power the great reformation which followed the finding of the book of the law. It is certain that he delivered some of his most pungent reproofs at this time—reproofs that, in all likelihood, form the first twelve chapters of his prophecy. It is not strange that he should utter such reproofs, while the reformation under Josiah was still in progress; for he understood that the reformation was external and that with the removal of the constraint of kingly authority the nation would revert into its old idolatries.
Jehoahaz, Josiah’s son and immediate successor, reigned but three months. When he was deposed by Pharaoh Necho, and carried into Egypt, Jeremiah calls upon the people to bemoan his captivity, the reason being that he shall see his land no more but shall die in the place whither they have led him captive, (chap. 32:10-12).
Jeremiah was not a little affected by the events of Jehoiakim’s reign. In the weakness and disorder which characterized this reign, the work of Jeremiah became more prominent and difficult. The people were divided in their preference between the king of Egypt and the king of Babylon. Some were for the people’s placing themselves under the wing of the king of Egypt; while others insisted that the only safety of the people lay in their accepting the supremacy of the Chaldeans. Jeremiah was of this conviction. By inspiration he discerned the signs of the times. It was revealed to him that the king of Babylon was destined to prevail over all resistance as God’s instrument, doing His work. This he also proclaimed and thereby exposed himself to the charge of treachery. False prophets there were, who set their word—a word of which they, too, said -that it had been put in their mouth by the Lord—against his. So intense was the feeling against him, that he would have been put to death, had not his friend Ahikim, the son of Shaphan, interposed for his rescue. All that he could do was to commit his cause to God and wait for the fulfilment of his prophecy.
In the fourth year of Jehoiakim, the battle of Carchemish put an end to the hopes of the Egyptian party. The Egyptian army under Necho was defeated with great slaughter by Nebuchadnezzar.
At this time Jeremiah was directed by the Lord to commit his prophecies to writing, which he did; and Baruch, his scribe, was sent to read them to the people. The king, upon hearing of it, was furious. He gave vent to his rage by cutting the prophetic writing in pieces, and burning it in the fire. But the prophecies were re-written, and severe denunciations were added respecting the impious king.
As the danger from the Chaldeans became more threatening, the persecution of Jeremiah became more severe. The people cursed him and sought his life. But he went on with his work, reproving king, and princes, and people, and warning all of the approaching destruction.
Jehoiachim, the king, was slain by the Chaldeans, and his body was left, for a time, without burial, as Jeremiah had predicted. Jehoiachin, his son, reigned in his stead; but he was soon taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar, and was sent to Babylon in fulfilment of another of Jeremiah’s predictions. His successor was Zedekiah, the son of Josiah and the last to sit upon the throne of Judah. If Jehoiachim had come to the throne as vassal of Egypt; Zedekiah was appointed by Nebuchadnezzar, and reigned under him. This perhaps accounts for it that, in distinction from Jehoiakim, he respected the prophet, feared him, and sought his advice; but he was the mere shadow of a king, powerless against his own counsellors, and in his reign the sufferings of Jeremiah were greater than ever before. Thinking he could no longer do any good, he at one time tried to escape from Jerusalem, and take refuge in his own town of Anathoth. Learning of his intention, his enemies accused him of intending to desert to the Chaldeans; and despite his avowal of his innocency, he was thrown into prison. The king would have released him, but the princes conspired against him, and he was plunged into a horrible dungeon. From this he was delivered by Ebed-Melek, an Ethiopian eunuch, and restored to his former place in the prison, where he had the company of Baruch the scribe.
Soon after, the city was taken by the Chaldeans; the temple was burned; the king and his princes went into captivity. Jeremiah was taken from prison, and permitted to have his choice either to go to Babylon, where he would have been held in high honor in the king’s court, or to remain with his own people, that is, with as many of them as were not deported. He chose the latter; and Gedeliah, the son of his old friend Abikim, was made governor over them that remained.
There was now a brief period of peace; but this was soon broken by the murder of Gedeliah by Ishmael, who was one of the former princes of Judah. Failing to establish his authority over the remnant of the Jews, he escaped and fled to the Ammonites. Johanan, the son of Karea, now took charge of the people. Jeremiah counselled them in the name of the Lord to remain in the land, and be subject to the king of Babylon, but they rejected his counsel, and went into Egypt, taking the prophet with them. And here his words were sharper and stronger than ever before. He predicts the speedy conquest of Egypt by Nebuchadnezzar; utters a solemn protest against the idolatry of the Jews; and this is the last we hear of him. In all likelihood he died in Egypt.
So much on the more outward relation of Jeremiah. We must now concentrate on his prophecy as such. Because, as has already been explained, in connection with Isaiah, the discourse of the prophet reveals the man, reflects his individuality, bespeaks his natural and spiritual endowments. And it is in the man Jeremiah, that we are now interested.
There is still one remark that must be made before we turn to his prophecy. No two prophets were alike. Hence no two discourses are alike. Yet essentially, of course, the prophecies of all the prophets are the same. The reason is that all true prophecy is gospel—the gospel of Christ—a good message concerning the promise, the revelation of God concerning the redemption of His people, and thus turns on the same great themes, namely, sin, judgment and redemption through judgment. If now these discourses are at once so many living testimonies of the men through the agency of whom God brought these scriptures into being, then it follows, that in looking in the prophecy of Jeremiah for Jeremiah, we must not expect to find a man that, as to his natural and spiritual endowments, differs greatly from Isaiah and from the rest of the prophets. All were men who loved God fervently and His people deeply and tenderly. All were men of courage. When the truth was at stake, all without exception were stern, severe and uncompromising. All, as they appear in their respective discourses, were men of true vision, who saw the promises afar off, “and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” Yet each prophet, as God’s creature, was a distinct personality.
Let us now turn to Jeremiahs discourse in search of the man. One characteristic of the prophecy of Jeremiah is the prominence in it of the elements of sin and judgment and the relative inconspicuousness of the element of salvation. With the exception of four chapters (30-34) the entire discourse is formed of words of rebuke and warning, threatenings, denunciations of sin, predictions of judgments, and narration of doleful events, descriptions of Israel’s evil-doings, calls to repentance, and lamentations.
The prophecy divides into an introduction, chap. 1; two main divisions, chapters 11-45 and 46-51 respectively; and the conclusion chap. 52. The first 29 chapters of the first division divides into nine discourses, each of which deals with a distinct theme. They are: 1) The apostasy of the nation; its wickedness, spiritual degeneration and debauchery. The Lord planted His people a noble vine, wholly a right seed; but they are turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine unto God. They cannot say that they are not polluted, chap. 11. 2) The impending judgments of God upon the nation for its perverseness—judgments to take a definite shape in the captivity of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity, chapters 3, 4. 3) In this discourse the prophet calls for true repentance. He rejects the vain confidence of the people, threatens them for their idolatry, rejects the sacrifices of the disobedient, and exhorteth them to mourn for their abominations in Tophet, chap. 7-10. 4) The prophet proclaims God’s covenant, rebukes the people’s disobedience thereof, and prophesies evils to come upon them. He lamenteth the spoliation of the Lord’s heritage and directs to the penitent a promise of salvation, chapters 11-13. 5) A grievous famine causes the prophet to intercede for his people; but the Lord will not be entreated for them. The lying prophets are no excuse to them. He again prays for them. He foretells the utter rejection and manifold judgments of the apostate people. Under the type of abstaining from marriage he foreshoweth utter destruction of the nation and thereupon their return from captivity, which shall be stranger than their deliverance from Egypt. He foretells the captivity of Judah for her sin, pronounces trust in man cursed and trust in the Lord blessed, and sets forth the salvation of God, chapters 14-17, 18. 6) The Sabbath to be kept holy chapters 17, 19-27. 7) Under the symbol of a potter the prophet shows God’s absolute right to dispose of the nations as He wills. Under the symbol of breaking a potter’s vessel he foreshows the desolation of the Jews for their sins. Pashur, smiting Jeremiah receives a new name and a fearful doom. The prophet complains of the contempt in which he is held by the people, of the treacherous dealing which they afford him and curses the day wherein he was born, chapters 18-20. 8) Zedekiah enquires of Jeremiah concerning the war. The prophet foretells a hard siege and a miserable captivity. He counsels the people to fall to the Chaldeans and upbraids the king’s house, exhorteth to repentance, pronounces judgment upon Shallum, Jehoiakim and Coniah, prophesies a restoration of the scattered flock, their salvation by Christ and His rule over them, inveighs against the false prophets and the mockers of the true servants of God. Then, under the figure of good and bad figs he foreshows the restoration of them that were in captivity and the desolation of Zedekiah and the rest, chapters 21-24. 9) Jeremiah reproves the Jews’ disobedience, foretells the seventy years captivity and the destruction of Babylon, foreshows the destruction of the nations, and exhorts to repentance. He is now apprehended by the wicked Jews, who want to put him to death. He is quit in judgment by the example of the prophets Micah and Urijah and saved from death by the hand of Ahikim. Under the figure of bonds and yokes he prophesies the subduing of the neighbor kings unto Nebuchadnezzar, exhorts them to yield and not to believe the false prophets and foretells that the remnant of the vessels shall be carried to Babylon. Hananiah utters a false prophecy. Jeremiah shews that the events will declare who are the true prophets, and foretells Hananiah’s death. The prophet now sent a letter to the captives in Babylon, exhorting them to be quiet there and not to believe the dreams of the false prophets. He assures them that they shall return with grace after seventy years, foretelleth the destruction of the rest for their disobedience and shews the fearful end of Ahab, Zedekiah and Shemaiah, chapters 25-29.
Now follow the tenth and the eleventh discourses, rightly called the book of consolation and including chapters 30-33. The message contained in these two discourses is to the following effect: The Lord will bring the captivity of His people; Jacob shall be saved from afar off and be restored to his former glory by the Lord, whose love for His people is everlasting. The Lord, further, will have mercy on Ephraim; He will watch over Israel to build and to plant him. He will make a new covenant with His people to consist in His putting His laws in their heart. Israel can no more cease to be a nation than the ordinance of heaven can depart from Him. In those days the Lord shall cause the branch of righteousness to grow up in David. He shall execute judgment in the land.
Chapters 34 and 35 form an appendix to the above collection of discourses in which is narrated the disobedience of Israel in contrast to the obedience of the Rechabites to their father.
Chapters 36 to 44 form a historical presentation of the most important events from the fourth year of Jehoiakim to the close of the prophet’s ministry, including the promise made to Baruch.
The second main division includes the remaining chapters of Jeremiah’s prophecy—46-52. This section is comprised of nine distinct discourses, foretelling the downfall of as many nations, namely, of Egypt, the Philistines, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Damascus, the Arabians, Elam, Babylon.
Such then is the substance of the prophecy of Jeremiah. What it brings out is that in this discourse the element of judgment is much more conspicuous than the element of salvation. From this, however, it must not be concluded that Jeremiah, in distinction from, let us say, Isaiah, was a man outstandingly stern, severe, forbidding, a man who welcomed strife and debate. Nothing could be further from the truth. In his prophecy he stands before us as a man conspicuously timid and sensitive, further as a man capable of great sympathy and deep feeling and thus of great sorrow. In his prophecy we see him, moreover, a man of unwavering faith in Jehovah and thus of absolute and overwhelming strength. Let us shew this.
Jeremiah was naturally timid, shy, unobtrusive, retiring. His timidity, or was it his simplicity, is seen in the way in which he shrank from his calling. Said he, when the call came to him, “Ah, Lord God! I cannot speak, for I am but a child” (Isa. 1:6).
Jeremiah was a sensitive soul. As constrained by the love of God and his people, he without reserve, proclaimed the dreadful word that the Lord put into his mouth, disclosed to the people what would befall them, if, instead of turning to the Lord, they continued to put their trust in the arm of flesh. He persistently counselled the leaders and the people to obey God through their falling to the Chaldeans. He told them that, doing so, they would live and not perish by the sword of the Chaldeans. But the people and their leaders would not hearken. They were for falling to the Egyptians and with their help resisting the invasion of the Chaldeans. Because of this clash between Jeremiah’s foreign policy and theirs, they tried to silence the prophet. Pashur, the son of the high priest, smote him and put him in the stocks. At another time they demanded of the king that he have the prophet put to death; “for,” said they, “he weakeneth the hands of the men of war that remain in the city, and the hands of all the people, in speaking such words unto them: for this man seeketh not the welfare of the people, but their hurt.” The offence of Jeremiah was great in the eyes of these leaders. They mocked him and clamored for his death. And how Jeremiah—this sensitive and naturally timid man—suffered under their attack. “Woe is me, my mother, that thou hast borne me a man of strife and a man of contention to the whole earth!” (15:10). At one time he actually resolves to keep silence. “Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name” (20:9). But he could not keep silence for long, because the word of God was in his heart as a burning fire shut up in his bones, and he was weary of forbearing, and could not stay, for he heard the defaming of many, and fear on every side (9:10). At another time the vexation of the prophet was so great, that as Job, he cursed the day of his birth, “Cursed be the day wherein I was born; let not the day wherein my mother bare me be blessed. Cursed be the man who brought tidings to my father, saying, A man child is born unto thee; making him very glad. And let that man be as the cities that the Lord overthrew and repented not; and let him hear the cry in the morning and the shout at noontide; because he slew me not in the womb; or that my mother might have been my grave and her womb be always great with me. Wherefore came I forth out of the womb to set labor and sorrow, that my days should be consumed with shame” (20:14-18).
In his discourse Jeremiah reveals himself as a man capable of a great sorrow. The time during which he was Jehovah’s spokesman, were days of darkness and disaster. The national movement was downward, the people sinking ever lower. The people rushed headlong to their final calamity. How the knowledge of what his people—a people whom he loved with the tenderness of a woman—were to suffer and the spectacle of this suffering, tore at his heart, “My bowels, my bowels!” he would cry, “I am pained at my very heart; my heart maketh a noise in me; I cannot hold my peace, because thou hast heard, 0 my soul, the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war. Destruction upon destruction is cried; for the whole land is spoiled; suddenly are my tents spoiled” (chap. 5:19ff). O, that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of mine people” (9:1). Such are the lamentations with which he would interrupt his preachments of judgment and doom. And how he could plead with his people to repent in order that they might be saved. “Then said I, Ah, Lord God! surely thou hast greatly deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying ye shall have peace; whereas the sword reacheth unto the soul. At that time shall it be said to this people and to Jerusalem, A dry wind of the high places in the wilderness toward the daughter of my people, not to fan nor to cleanse, even a full wind from those places shall come unto me: now also will I give sentence against them. Behold, he shall come up as clouds, and his chariots shall be as a whirlwind: the horses are swifter than eagles. Woe unto us for we are spoiled. O Jerusalem, wash thine heart from wickedness, that thou mayest be saved” (4:10-14).
The prophet’s sympathy, timidity and natural sensitiveness, did not prevent him from declaring the full counsel of God. He declared this counsel, the word that the Lord put into his mouth, with absolute courage—a courage the secret of which was his faith in God and the confident hope of a blessed future for penitent, the remnant left of the sword. The prophet believed in the restoration of Israel, “At the same time, saith the Lord, Will I be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people. Again I will build thee, and thou shalt be built, O virgin of Israel: thou shalt again be adorned with thy tabrets, and shalt again go forth in the dances of them that make merry.”
Jeremiah in his lamentings carries us back in our minds to the wailings, the expressions of disconsolate grief, of the man Job. But there is this difference to be noticed: Job’s sorrows were caused by the hand of God resting heavily upon him personally. The cause of Jeremiah’s great sorrow was the hand of God resting heavily upon the church. Jeremiah in his sorrow is to be regarded not as standing solitary but as one with the church. He was brought into being and prepared by his Maker to give expression to the sorrow in tribulation and confident hope of the church of his day and of all time. This was his peculiar function in distinction from all the other prophets of God. It was precisely through the agency of a man constituted as was he that the Lord gave to His church the discourse that bears his name and the Lamentations.