Who Was Jeremiah?
Updated: Jul 30, 2020
If I were to ask you, “Who was Jeremiah?” and you answered, “Jeremiah was a bullfrog.” (1) Then you really need to read this.
Jeremiah was one of the most important prophets in the Old Testament. As a prophet, his life was in danger most of the time. The commands of God that burned within him compelled him to take positions that were grossly unpopular. On several occasions, he was openly despised and disparaged in the streets of Jerusalem, declared a menace to the public good. But he was not intimidated by threats; he was convinced that God was with him. Although there were times when he was hopping mad at God for the predicaments, He got him into.
He was the longest serving prophet in Jewish history (nearly forty-five years) and it resulted in the Book of Jeremiah being the longest book in the Bible (more than 33,000 words). His ministry spanned the reigns of five different kings. Even a brief telling of his story is a bit lengthy. NOTE: When the Book of Jeremiah was later translated into Greek, the text was rearranged thematically, so the modern text does not follow Jeremiah’s life chronologically.
· In 650 BC, Jeremiah was born in the town of Anathoth, 3 miles northeast of Jerusalem. Many years earlier, in 722 BC, the Assyrians had driven into exile the 10 northern tribes of Israel. This left only the two southern tribes remaining in the kingdom of Judah, beholding to the Assyrians for their existence. Jeremiah was the son of the High Priest, Hilkiah [cf. Jer 1:1] who served under a very corrupt King Manasseh.
· In 626 BC, God called Jeremiah to be His prophet to King Josiah [cf. Jer 1:2], grandson of Manasseh. He quickly found himself standing essentially alone as a prophet during the most turbulent times in Jewish history. We are fortunate that a young man named Baruch joined Jeremiah at about this time to serve as his secretary and scribe. This resulted in what we know today as the Book of Jeremiah. More than in any other place in the Bible, the Book of Jeremiah gives us an in-depth look at a personal prayer life that made God an intimate part of Jeremiah’s life experiences.
Baruch not only recorded what Jeremiah did and had to say to those around him, but he gave us a firsthand witness to Jeremiah’s personal prayer life with God. Jeremiah spoke very frankly and directly with God – in cries of the heart, not outbursts of blasphemy. And, God was equally direct with him.
In the decades leading up to Jeremiah’s call, the Temple in Jerusalem went essentially unused and the Ark of the Covenant was removed from the Temple and hidden in catacombs beneath the city of Jerusalem. (2) The kingdom of Judah had become so corrupt and steeped in idol worship that Jeremiah vigorously condemned people burning their children as offerings to the Assyrian god, Moloch, in the Hinnom Valley just west of Jerusalem [cf. 2 Kgs 16:3]. This immediately drew the wrath of just about everyone and prompted plots against Jeremiah, including in his hometown [cf. Jer 11:18-23]. But when Jeremiah complained to the Lord about this persecution, he was told that the attacks on him would become even worse.
· In 627 BC, the empire of Babylon began attacking the Assyrians. This drew attention from Judah, and King Josiah used the opportunity to oppose the Assyrian culture that dominated Judah. He also expanded his control into the regions north of Judah, known today as Samaria and Galilee [cf. 2 Kgs 34:3].
· In 623 BC, Jeremiah’s father found, while rummaging through an old storeroom in the Temple, an ancient scroll [ 2 Kgs 22:10-13] which many scholars consider the rudiments of what would later be the Book of Deuteronomy. This, at the urging of Jeremiah, prompted a series of religious reforms under King Josiah [cf. 2 Kgs 22-23].
· In 609 BC, Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II began a military campaign against Babylon and his army marched through territory King Josiah claimed. Against the advice of Jeremiah, Josiah attempted to block the Egyptians at Megiddo. Josiah was killed there by Egyptian archers. The youngest of his four sons, Jehoahaz, was chosen as king. But he was taken captive by the Egyptian pharaoh. The pharaoh appointed Jehoahaz’s brother, Eliakim, as king, after changing his name to Jehoiakim [cf. 2 Kgs 23:29-35]. The change in name signaled a commitment of loyalty to the one who assigned the name. (3)
Jehoiakim proved to be a godless tyrant. To pay the huge taxes the Egyptians levied on him, he bankrupted the Kingdom of Judah. He also surrendered many of the Jewish nobility as captives, including a young boy who would later be known as the prophet Daniel. The king engaged in incestuous relations with his mother, his daughter-in-law and his stepmother, among other atrocities. When Jeremiah confronted him, he sought to have Jeremiah executed, but he escaped. While many in Jerusalem returned to Temple worship, they also retained the idol worship they had become accustomed to under Assyrian influence.
· In 606 BC, Jehoiakim had the scrolls on which Baruch had been writing down Jeremiah’s preachings burned. He ordered that Jeremiah and Baruch be seized, but they managed to escape. Baruch had a phenomenal memory and in later years he reconstructed the scrolls. Hunted by the king, Jeremiah turned to the people directly trying to convince them that they must change their godless ways or Judah would be faced with famine, plundered and taken captive by foreigners. This only served to infuriate the people against Jeremiah, and he was placed on public trial for his life [cf. Jer 26:7-15].
Although he was acquitted, he and Baruch were forced into hiding. But, one day he was captured by Pashur, the Temple chief. Jeremiah was severely beaten and imprisoned, where Jeremiah uttered one of the most heart-wrenching "cry from the heart" to God ever recorded in Scripture: “The word of the Lord has brought me reproach and derision all day long…. But then it is as if fire is burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding back,
I cannot!f [Jer 20:8-9]
· In 605 BC, with the defeat of the Egyptians by the Babylonians, Jehoiakim switched allegiance to the Babylonians. But four years later, he switched back to the Egyptians. which brought about the Babylonian invasion of Judah [cf. 2 Kgs 24:1].
· In 598 BC, Jehoiakim was captured in the invasion and was succeeded by his son, Jehoiachin. But the Babylonians deposed him after only three months, taking thousands off to Babylon in captivity, including a young man named Ezekiel. God had Jeremiah stand at the gates of the city and cry out to the captives as they are led away “humble yourselves” [cf. Jer 13:18]. The Babylonians replaced Jehoiachin with the youngest of Josiah’s son, Matasiah, after changing his name to Zedekiah. [cf. 2 Chr 36:6-8].
Soon, the people remaining in Judah began adopting practices from Babylonian influence that we would call today, “new age.” These Jeremiah roundly condemned [cf. Jer 10:1-5]. This again put Jeremiah in danger for his life. Jeremiah also wrote a letter to the exiles in Babylon which Baruch repeated in what is now Chap 29 of the Book of Jeremiah.
The letter encouraged those in Babylon but chastised those in Judah. This infuriated the people in Jerusalem, and they had Jeremiah thrown into a muddy pit to die. But he was rescued by a foreigner and taken under the protection of King Zedekiah. [cf. Jer 38:4-28] where he argued against going over to the Egyptians. At this point, Jeremiah was publicly humiliated by a self-proclaimed prophet named Hananiah [cf. Jer 28:1-11]. Jerusalem was now swarming with false prophets leading the people in conflicting directions. Jeremiah turned to God in despair [cf. Jer 14:13-15]. He then fled north to the small town of Benjamin but was seized there and charged with being a collaborator. He was severely beaten and thrown into a dungeon [cf. Jer 37:11-16]. He was later released.
· In 588 BC, King Zedekiah refused to pay the annual taxes to Babylon. And in the following year, Zedekiah and virtually every person remaining in Judah were taken into exile in Babylon [2 Kgs 25:8-10]. Jeremiah escaped into the hills outside of Jerusalem and God instructs him, “Do not pray on behalf of this people” [Jer 14:11]. Jeremiah screams at God, “Have you rejected Judah completely? Do you revile Zion?” [Jer 14:19]. The Book of Lamentations is said to have been written as Jeremiah witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Jeremiah was seized by the Babylonians but was released to the newly appointed Governor of Judah. The governor was soon assassinated, and a young man named Johanan took over.
· In 585 BC, at Jeremiah’s urging, Johanan took Jeremiah, Baruch and king Zedekiah’s daughters and fled to Tahpanhes, Egypt. There, Jeremiah told the people that they must not adopt the pagan practices of the Egyptians for, in time, Babylon would find them there as well. (4) Jeremiah was vehemently rejected by them [cf. Jer 44:15-19]. It’s estimated that Jeremiah died some three or four years later, although there’s no authentic record of his death.
Throughout his nearly forty-five-year prophetic career, Jeremiah’s lot was one of exhilaration and despair, great joy and great disappointment. And, he was almost always rejected by those around him. But God was always there with him, often “plucking him from the jaws of death.” God’s plan of salvation takes many turns, inscrutable even to great prophets. Jeremiah got discouraged, many times, but he never lost faith.
The turmoil of our times, while much different in the particulars, is strikingly parallel to those of Jeremiah’s time. Widespread turning away from God, rejection of long-held principles, and conflicting allegiances to competing Ideologies, rather than empires, beg for the Jeremiahs of our time to speak truth to power. And that can only be done by those who are willing to both listen and speak to God with the directness that Jeremiah did.
At first it might seem that Jeremiah was most unsuccessful in his efforts. But we must remember that he was doing the will of God. While we know the trajectory his nation took, we have no idea how many individuals, on hearing Jeremiah’s message, changed their ways and were reconciled with God.
Till next time,
Dcn. Bob Evans
July 28, 2020
1 “Jeremiah was a bullfrog” is the opening line of the song "Joy to the World" by the group, Three Dog Night, first performed in Nov. 1970.
2 Benyamin Lau, Jeremiah: The Fate of a Prophet, 2010.
3 Walter Elwell, “Significance of Names” in Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1988.
4 In 567 BC, the Babylonians invaded Egypt, captured the Jews there and carried them off to Babylon.
Jeremiah 1:1-2; 11:18-23; 13:18; 14:11; 14:13-15; 14:19; 20:8-9; 26:7-15; 28:1-11; Chap 29; 37:11-16; 38:4-28; 44:15-19 2 Kings 16:3; Chaps 22-23; 23:29-35; 24:1; 25:8-10; 34:3; 2 Chronicles 36:6-8