Key Texts: Jeremiah 1:1-19; 7:5-7
The Book of Jeremiah
The book of Jeremiah is remarkable for several reasons.
- Canonical status. The man for whom the book is named was thoroughly vilified by the believers in his own day, and not only by ordinary believers, but by royalty, priests and other competing voices. But in light of events, God’s people recognized that Jeremiah was indeed a true prophet, even if he was not accepted as such in his own day. Thus it is part of our canon of Scripture.
- An edited book with the marks of editing left intact. Critics have been quick to argue that certain books in Scripture were written by a variety of authors. Genesis, Isaiah, and Proverbs are some of the best known examples. While Proverbs has left us some marks of the work of later editors, no other Old Testament book reveals so much of the history of its composition as Jeremiah: 1) It contains a mix of first and third person elements; 2) it dates a number of oracles to the reigns of specific kings; and 3) it explicitly marks the last chapter (Jer. 52) as coming from the editors, not from Jeremiah.
- A book that mixes the acrid with the sublime. Jeremiah’s venom against his enemies in 18:19-23 contrasts sharply with the beautiful new covenant promise in Jeremiah 31:31-34. How can the same author take us to such depths and such heights?
The Times of Jeremiah
According to the prologue (1:1-3), Jeremiah’s ministry extended from the thirteenth year of Josiah to the fifth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah. The wrenching climax of his ministry came with the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon (586/87), an event which Jeremiah predicted repeatedly. What was particularly angering for the people of Judah was his insistence that they submit to Babylon and go into captivity. In almost anyone’s book that would sound like treason, and that’s exactly what his accusers said.
How much easier it would have been for Jeremiah if he could have taken a page from Isaiah’s portfolio, counseling king and people to stand firm against the (Assyrian) invaders. Both Hezekiah and Josiah instituted significant revivals and led out in the restoration of the Passover feast. But Josiah’s reform did not last and the city ended up going into captivity. While Josiah was clearly one of the good kings, those who followed him did not earn that label. For purposes of reference, here is what can be learned about the kings that followed Josiah up through the end of the kingdom of Judah:
The Last Kings of Judah
Josiah’s sons: 1 Chron. 3:15 lists Josiah’s four sons in this order:
- Johanan (oldest, but mentioned only here in Scripture)
- Shallum = Jehoahaz
But the sons did not rule in their birth order. Here is the record, additional names included:
- Jehoahaz (Josiah’s #4) = Shallum; reigned 3 months (608)
- Jehoiakim (Josiah’s #2) = Eliakim; reigned 11 years (608-597)
- Jehoiachin (Josiah’s grandson, son of #2, Jehoiakim) = Joiachin = Jeconiah = Coniah; reigned 3 months (597). According to the Hebrew Massoretic text, he was 8 years old when he began to reign. But a comparison of 2 Kings 24:8 with the Septuagint (Greek) of 2 Chron. 36:9 indicates that he was 18 years old when he began to reign.
- Zedekiah (Josiah’s #3) = Mattaniah; reigned 11 years (not the brother of Jehoiachin as in 2 Chron. 36:10; cf. 1 Chron. 3:16 where it is stated that Jehoiachin (Jeconiah) had a son named Zedekiah; 2 Kings 24:17 rightly identifies Zedekiah as uncle to Jehoiachin. NOTE: Ezekiel dates his prophecies (8:1; 20:1, etc.) to the exile of Jehoiachin, not to the reign of Zedekiah. In 2 Kings 25:27 Jehoiachin is still referred to as king.
The verses that describe Jeremiah’s call (1:5-19), suggest that he felt coerced by God. But such an experience is hardly unique among the Old Testament prophets. Note this list, all of which indicate a high level of perceived divine coercion. Of these examples, only Isaiah comes close to a call freely chosen, and even his call could hardly be called “free” given the intense sound and light show that accompanied it (Isaiah 6).
- (Exod. 3:1- 4:17) Moses: divine coaxing and urging; many excuses in return
- (Num. 11:16-30) The Seventy: one-time, non-volitional experience
- (Num. 22-24) Balaam: prophetic dictation (cf. Num. 31:16; Josh. 31:22)
- (1 Sam. 19:18-24) Saul: non-rational, ecstatic prophetic trance, seemingly imposed for defensive purposes (to protect the innocent)
- (Isaiah 6) Isaiah: a call “almost” freely chosen 3
- F) (Jeremiah 1:4-19; 12:1-17; 20:7-18) Jeremiah: coerced, overpowered, openly complaining
- G) (Ezekiel 2-3; 24:15-18) Ezekiel: coerced, overpowered, but suffering in seemingly unemotional silence
- H) Jonah 1-4) Jonah: angry and reluctant (“failed prediction; successful prophecy”)
It is good to remember, however, that all we have in Scripture is the human “perception” of God’s heavy hand. God’s actual role is not something humans can see. Isaiah 55:8-9 reminds us that God’s ways are far above ours.
It is also well to note that God seems to deal with the prophets in a singular way. In Ellen White’s day, some were pointing to her forceful way of addressing evil in public as a model for their own aggressive behavior. Ellen White was clear that her prophetic calling did not provide an example for those without such a calling:
“God has not given my brethren the work that He has given me. It has been urged that my manner of giving reproof in public has led others to be sharp and critical and severe. If so, they must settle that matter with the Lord. If others take a responsibility which God has not laid upon them; if they disregard the instructions He has given them again and again through the humble instrument of His choice, to be kind, patient, and forbearing, they alone must answer for the results. With a sorrow-burdened heart, I have performed my unpleasant duty to my dearest friends, not daring to please myself by withholding reproof, even from my husband; and I shall not be less faithful in warning others, whether they will hear or forbear.” – Testimonies 5:20 ; repeated in 5:677-78 
- Question: How can one explain the overwhelming harshness of the prophetic messages? Wouldn’t it have been more effective to win by love rather than by fear?
- Question: If Jeremiah explicitly illustrates the work of secretaries, editors, and compilers, is it likely that other biblical books may also have been so constructed, even with no direct evidence in the text?
- Question: Does seeing the human elements involved in producing a book like Jeremiah make it more difficult to preserve a sense of awe and power in the biblical text?
- Question: To what extent can one set the biblical prophets apart in a category by themselves so that their experience is not necessarily seen as normative for ordinary human beings?
- Question: If God gives us a hard task, does it help to know that he will stand by us, making us like “a bronze wall” (1:18) in the face of opposition?