Throughout the stories told in the Old Testament, we find three kinds of figures. All of them in various ways are types of the Lord Jesus, but no one figure portrays Him completely. We have kings, like David or Hezekiah. We have faithful priests, like Aaron or Jehoida. And we have the prophets, men like Malachi, Isaiah, or Jeremiah. Our story here concerns Jeremiah, who in many ways typifies the role that prophets had been given.
The kings were responsible before God to see to that the true God was worshipped, and worshipped in truth. They were to establish the throne in righteousness, and they were to administer justice in accordance with the law of God. The priests were responsible to conduct the worship of God. But, human nature being what it is, it was too frequently the case that kings and priests departed from faithfulness to God, and needed to be called back. This was the task assigned to the prophets, establishment outsiders, men who answered directly to God. Because they came to rebuke those in power for their abuses of power, they were frequently handled with severity. Their power was rarely institutional; their authority came from speaking the Word of the Lord.
In the centuries leading up to the ministry of Jeremiah, the landscape of Israel had been completely altered. The ten tribes had come out of Egypt under the leadership of Moses, and they invaded Canaan under the direction of the great Joshua. This inaugurated the period of the judges, men who ruled a decentralized, but often disobedient and oppressed people. The last of these judges was a prophet named Samuel, who was used by God to anoint the first two kings over Israel—first Saul, and then David.
David established Israel as a mighty nation, and Solomon ruled over Israel in the days of her glory. But after Solomon died, Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, refused to grant tax relief, and the kingdom split in two as a result. Israel was made up of the ten tribes to the north, and Judah was made up of Judah and Benjamin to the south. The history of both kingdoms was checkered, but Israel was worse. About a century before Jeremiah’s life and ministry, Assyria had conquered the northern kingdom. Contrary to popular assumption, this did not cause what some refer to as the “ten lost tribes.” The ten tribes of Israel were not lost at all—their nation was destroyed, and they were taken into exile, but that did not cause Judah to lose track of tribal identity. Many faithful Jews from the northern tribes had emigrated south in order to live in Judah, and so when their former homeland was destroyed, their tribes were still preserved. Judah contained Judah and Benjamin, and of course the tribe of Levi was there as well. In the time of Jesus, Anna the prophetess was from the tribe of Asher (Luke 2:36), and the apostle Paul could refer naturally to the twelve tribes (Acts 26:7). Tribal identity was finally lost in 70 AD when the Temple was destroyed, along with all its genealogical records.
Jeremiah’s role was to prophesy to the nation of Judah as their idolatry caused them to careen toward their own defeat by Babylon. Just as the northern kingdom had fallen because of her idolatry, so the southern kingdom would follow suit. Jeremiah saw the impending doom, and had the thankless task of warning a nation that was spiritually deaf and blind.
Jeremiah came from a priestly family (1:1), and it is plain that they were also a devout family. He came from the line of rejected Ithamar priests (1 Kings 2:26), who had lived in Anathoth since the days of Solomon. Jeremiah was born there in Anathoth, and his name means “Yahweh exalts” or “Yahweh throws down,” and so it is plain what his family desired for the nation. Unfortunately, the nation Yahweh would throw down was the nation of Judah. Jeremiah was called to the prophetic ministry when he was only a “youth” (1:6), a word that can refer either to an infant or an older adolescent. He was most likely in his late teens or early twenties.
Jeremiah was called to the prophetic ministry in the thirteenth year of King Josiah (626 BC), and his ministry spanned the next forty years. He was a faithful prophet, and served the Lord until shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC. During these four decades of mostly grief, he prophesied under five kings, two of whom served only for three months each. His ministry stretched over the reign of Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. Far from being a perpetual naysayer, Jeremiah supported the great reforms of Josiah, and was willing to encourage (unsuccessfully) the cowards who succeeded Josiah on the throne.
Judah was surrounded by three great powers. There was Assyria, still a player but in the process of collapsing. There was Egypt, which had been on the scene for a long time. And then there was the rising star of Babylon, a power that had been greatly underestimated in the days of Hezekiah. When Hezekiah had recovered from his sickness, the Babylonians sent a delegation, and Hezekiah showed them all around, showing them everything. This displeased Isaiah greatly, and he prophesised that the Babylonians would capture everything, and take Hezekiah’s sons away into captivity (Is. 39). Josiah was the great grandson of Hezekiah.
But King Josiah died in a battle with Pharaoh Necho of Egypt. His successor, Jehoahaz (or Shallum), reigned for three months until Pharaoh Necho replaced him with his brother Jehoiakim. Jeremiah lamented both the death of Josiah (22:10a, 15ff) and the deposing of Jehoahaz (22:10-12), indicating that Jehoahaz was faithful like his father was. Men with backbone are unlikely to be appointed to positions of responsibility by men who want to manipulate a situation to their own advantage. And so Jehoahaz did not have the opportunity to reign in the fear of God.
His brother Jehoiakim reigned from 607 to 598 BC. But just a few years into his reign an event of enormous political significance occurred—the forces of Egypt under Pharaoh Necho were crushed by the Babylonians at the battle of Carcemish (46:1-2). This is the time when the hegemony of the Middle East was transferred to Babylon, although this was not obvious for a few years. The decisive point (in retrospect) was this battle, and from this battle on, the prophet Jeremiah insisted upon submission to the suzerainty of Babylon. He did this, not as compromiser with Babylon’s idolatry, but rather as a deadly foe of Judah’s idolatry. He would be a foolish man who accused Jeremiah of collaborating with idolaters, for his whole ministry was made up of rebuking idolaters. But a significant part of this ministry consisted of telling the Jewish idolaters that they had a moral responsibility to submit to the Babylonian idolaters. The faithfulness of the prophet is not the faithfulness of an ideologue. Neither is it the compromise of the time-server.
Jehoiakim died in 598 BC, and was replaced by his eighteen-year-old son, Jehoiachin, who reigned three months. He surrendered to the Babylonians, and Nebuchadnezzar then appointed Josiah’s youngest son, Zedekiah. He was a weak and vacillating king who ruled for ten years, until 587 BC. Although under the authority of Babylon, Judah revolted again, a policy which Jeremiah violently opposed. When Jerusalem fell, Nebuchadnezzar treated Jerermiah in a very kindly way. The emperor appointed Gedaliah to be the governor of Judah, and Jeremiah joined him at Mizpah (40:1-6). But Gedaliah was soon assassinated, and the people fled to Egypt, contrary to Jeremiah’s word, and they took Jeremiah with them.
This period in Judah’s history cannot be understood very well unless we understand that Judah was taken into exile in stages. In our story, we can see exiles being taken off to Babylon at least three times. Daniel and his three friends were taken off to Babylon after the first defeat, shortly after the Babylonian triumph at the battle of Carcemish. Shortly before this, during the reign of Josiah, the prophets Nahum, Zephaniah and Habbukuk had been conducting their ministries. When Jehoiachin was taken captive, he was taken off to Babylon, along with the prophet Ezekiel. But Ezekiel continued his prophetic ministry for those back in Judah—they would be there for another ten years. But one of the first visions Ezekiel saw was that of the abominations in the Jerusalem Temple, and the departure of God’s glory (8-11). His fellow Jews back in the homeland refused, even now, to give up their abominations. Jeremiah continued to minister in Jerusalem until it finally fell for good.
But this means that Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Nahum, Zephaniah, and Habbukuk were all contemporaries. They all spoke to the same stiff-necked people, some on this side of the exile, some on that side of it. But the issues were always the same fundamental issues, as they always are.
Jeremiah paid the price of faithfulness. During the course of his ministry, Jeremiah often confronted the cowardice of politicians and the duplicity of the kennel-fed prophets. True prophets confront the court and the king, but that is not their natural place. They prophesy from outside the Beltway. So during the reign of Jehoiakim, Jeremiah assailed the king, the prophets, and the priests, which earned him the full enmity of the establishment.
He was persecuted for it (12:6; 15:15-18), and he asked God to avenge the wrongs done to him. He appealed to God as the one who knew all circumstances. He called upon God to remember him, and visit him, and to deal with his persecutors. Since God knew everything, He knew that it was for His sake that Jeremiah suffered rebuke. Jeremiah knew that he was no hypocrite, because he rejoiced to eat the words of God, and his name carried the name of Yahweh. He had nothing to do with those who scoffed at the word of God, or at the faithful servants of God. While Jeremiah was persecuted for standing for the righteousness of God, he sometimes complained to God that divine vindication sometimes came too slowly. (15:15-18)
Jeremiah was plotted against (11:18-23; 18:18). The men of Anathoth, Jeremiah’s home town, plotted against him, and the Lord revealed their plotting to him. But Jeremiah, on his own, tended toward naivete, and did not know of all the devices they had invented. These plots included killing Jeremiah, destroying his tree and fruit, and cutting him off from the land of the living, and erasing his name altogether. And here we are today, over two and half millennia later, still speaking the name of Jeremiah, and his adversaries are simply the “men of Anathoth.”
Jeremiah knew that God tested the hearts and reins, the inner man, and he asked to see God’s vengeance upon these men. And God promised that those men who had come against his prophet would be punished severely, and there would be no remnant of them (11:18-23)
There was also a conspiracy to ignore the word of the Lord through the prophet. As it says in 18:18, “Then said they, Come, and let us devise devices against Jeremiah; for the law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet. Come, and let us smite him with the tongue, and let us not give heed to any of his words” (18:18). Who does Jeremiah think he is? Let us ignore him now, and attack him with out tongues. Today, when a prophet speaks to those people who will not hear the Lord, they smite with their tongues as well. They say, the age of prophets is past. You are not inspired like Jeremiah was. He was a prophet. And thus they testify—the only prophet they will hear is a dead one. And their fathers, who heard the living prophet, resolved to make him a dead one.
Jeremiah was thrown into a public and humiliating imprisonment. “Then Pashur smote Jeremiah the prophet, and put him in the stocks that were in the high gate of Benjamin, which was by the house of the LORD” (20:2). In this we see a clear type of the Lord Jesus—Jeremiah was despised and rejected. Is he a true prophet? I don’t know, we might say, but a place to start the inquiry is on the question whether or not he makes the principalities and powers, sleek and full of themselves, angry.
Jeremiah was declared worthy of death (26:10-24; 36:26), and we should note that there were some faithful men who stood up for Jeremiah. The princes of Judah met to consider whether Jeremiah’s prophecies were treasonous. Those who accused Jeremiah were the priests and the house-broken prophets. “This man is worthy to die; for he hath prophesied against this city, as ye have heard with your ears.” In our language, they said he was hurting the war effort. He was damaging morale. He spoke against this city, and since the city in which we live is the ultimate standard, he must surely die.
Jeremiah defended himself by appealing to the One who sent him. “The LORD sent me to prophesy against this house and against this city all the words that ye have heard.” In other words, if you want me to take them back, you will have to wait a long time. The prophet continued, bold as ever. “Therefore now amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the LORD your God; and the LORD will repent him of the evil that he hath pronounced against you.” They brought Jeremiah to put him on trial, and he spoke in such a faithful way that they were put on trial. Jeremiah said they could do to him what they pleased, but they could not undo, by any means, the truth of what he had said (v. 14).
Then the princes and all the people said to the wicked priests and prophets that Jeremiah should not die because he had spoken in the name of the LORD their God. Other instances of faithful prophets speaking doom were cited (26:10-24). On another occasion, the king commanded that Jeremiah and Baruch be taken into custody, but God protected them.
The king commanded Jerahmeel and Seraiah to take Baruch the scribe and Jeremiah the prophet: but the LORD hid them (36:26). His written work was destroyed (36:27), and treated with great contempt. And so Jeremiah faithfully made another copy of the words that the king had rejected.
During the reign of Zedekiah, he was arrested on a charge of deserting to the enemy, and thrown into a dungeon (37:11-16). The Babylonians broke off their siege of Jerusalem because the Egyptians had showed up, and so Jerusalem was temporarily free. So Jeremiah went out of Jerusalem to go to the tribe of Benjamin, to separate himself. But he was seen by a man named Irijah, who accused him of going over to the Babylonians. Jeremiah denied it, but what is evidence for those whose minds are made up? “But he hearkened not to him: so Irijah took Jeremiah, and brought him to the princes.” The princes were angry with Jeremiah and beat him, and threw him into prison, where he remained many days (37:11-16).
After this, he was moved to a prison near the palace for a time (37:17-21). And Zedekiah sent for him secretly, and brought him to his own house, and there asked, “Is there any word from the LORD?” Jeremiah said yes, you will be delivered over to the Babylonians. Jeremiah then raised some pointed questions. What had he done wrong? And no doubt looking around him, he asked, “Where are all your sunshine prophets, the men who said that Babylon will not come up against this land?
Jeremiah asked the king for a change of quarters, which was granted. He was committed to the court of the prison, and was given a ration of bread
(37:17-21). Jeremiah would not stop prophesying what God gave to him to say. He said,
Thus saith the LORD, He that remaineth in this city shall die by the sword, by the famine, and by the pestilence: but he that goeth forth to the Chaldeans shall live; for he shall have his life for a prey, and shall live. Thus saith the LORD, This city shall surely be given into the hand of the king of Babylon’s army, which shall take it (38:2-3).
God commanded the nation of Judah to surrender, to throw down their arms. This was too much for Shephatiah, Gedaliah, Jucal, and Pashur, who petitioned the king. “We beseech thee, let this man be put to death: for thus he weakeneth the hands of the men of war that remain in this city, and the hands of all the people, in speaking such words unto them: for this man seeketh not the welfare of this people, but the hurt.” He does not seek the welfare of the people, they said. He keeps talking about what God says. And so the king, a weak leader at best, said that he could not protect Jeremiah, and so the prophet was thrown into an abandoned cistern, where he sank down into the mud, and where he would have died but for the kindness of Ebed-melech (38:1-13). This Ebedmelech was an Ethiopian eunuch. The king could not save the prophet, but one of his eunuchs could. He sought the king’s favor, received it, and when to rescue the prophet. He went with thirty men, and a bunch of old rags, had Jeremiah put the rags under his arms, and drew him up out of the mire, and returned him to the court of the prison (38:1-13).
After this, a cowardly king conferred with him secretly (14-28). He needed Jeremiah’s words, and he could not obey Jeremiah’s words. He was impotent, paralyzed. He told Jeremiah to hold nothing back. Jeremiah said, “If I do that, will you not kill me? And refuse to listen?” The king swore (secretly), “As the Lord lives, that made us this soul,” he said, “I will not kill you, and I will not turn you over to those who would kill you.”
And so Jeremiah made one last attempt to get Zedekiah to obey the voice of the Lord. Obedience meant surrender. If he surrendered, his life would be spared. If he did not, the city would be destroyed with fire, and Zedekiah would be put to death. By this time, Zedekiah knew beyond any doubt that Jeremiah was right. But he still did not have the moral courage to do what was right.
The way of the Lord was set before the king, and the choice was the same as it always is—will it be life or will it be death. The king commanded Jeremiah not to tell this prophesy to anyone, and if the princes came to him to find out what it was, to withhold it from them. The king told Jeremiah to say that he was presenting a petition to the king, a petition that he not be made to return to his previous quarters. The princes did come and ask, and Jeremiah did not tell them what he had told the king. It was possible that the king might obey, but these men had proven they had no intention whatever of obeying. The truth for them would have been pearls before swine. So Jeremiah remained where he was until the day that Jerusalem was taken (38:14-28), the day that all his unheeded warnings were fulfilled.
It is worthy noting that cowards are frequently brave about distant dangers, like the Babylonians, precisely because they are afraid of near-by pressures, such as those that might come from courtiers and princes. Because Zedekiah was this kind of coward, he lived to see his sons executed in front of him, and all the words of the courageous prophet fulfilled.
And at the end of his life, a profound patriot, he was carried away from his homeland to die in Egypt. As a prophet whose words had been confirmed many times over, his word was sought after the assassination of Gedaliah. The people promised that they would abide by what he said. But when Jeremiah told them to stay, they refused and fled to Egypt. They did so under the leadership, it says, of “all the proud men.” Judah was a smoldering ruin, and the hearts of men were still proud. And then, in Egypt, exiled there because Jeremiah had spoken the truth, the people who opposed Jeremiah, had the hardness of heart to maintain that they were in exile because they had not worshipped the queen of heaven, one of their idols, enough.
At the end of this story, we might be tempted to offer up a great lamentation for the prophet Jeremiah. His words were not believed by the hearers throughout the course of his entire life. But some believed, and certainly Jeremiah himself believed. And as we read through his prophecies, we come upon some of the most glorious words of hope to be found in all Scripture.
In Matthew 27:9, the thirty pieces of silver that were used to secure the treachery of Judas were subsequently used to buy a field called Akeldama. The price was given by Zechariah, but the glorious faith of Jeremiah is what is referred to. In the dark days of Judah’s trial, Jeremiah bought a field with silver, a testimony that the Jews would return, and would again buy and sell. They would return to the land, Jeremiah said, after seventy years. And business would return to normal, and their hearts would again return to their normal hardened state. One of the things they would buy and sell was their own Messiah, and then they would buy as sell a field with the returned blood money. Nothing ever changes, one might be tempted to think.
But Jeremiah knew better. Though thirty pieces of silver would buy the blood of the Messiah, and a little later, those same pieces of silver would buy a field for burying the homeless, the blood of the Messiah would itself buy the salvation of the world. The day would come, our faithful prophet said, when it would no longer be necessary for us to exhort one another, saying, Know the Lord. For the day is coming when all flesh will know the Lord, and the law will be written on our hearts and minds, and all our sins will be forgiven us. For all his grief, Jeremiah was the great prophet of hope.
Are we exasperated with those who did not believe him while he lived? But let us ask ourselves a more basic question. Do we believe him? Do we embrace his great hope—that the new covenant will deal with all the sinful wickedness of man? Do we believe the power of the gospel? Let us hear the word of the Lord, spoken by the prophet Jeremiah.
And they shall be my people, and I will be their God: And I will give them one heart, and one way, that they may fear me for ever, for the good of them, and of their children after them: And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me (32:38-40).