Jeremiah carried out his ministry during a very difficult time in the history of Judah. The latter part of the seventh century and the beginning of the sixth century was a period of constant political uncertainty in Jerusalem and the rest of the nation. Jeremiah had supported the reforms of Josiah, but during the reign of Jehoiakim, Josiah’s son, Jeremiah saw that the people were reverting to the old religious practices that existed prior to the reforms.
The deportation of part of the population of Judah to Babylon caused great anxiety among the people, a situation that resulted in a profound division among the political and religious leaders of Judah concerning the future of the nation. Judah enjoyed a brief time of independence under Josiah, time enough for the nation to believe that Assyria’s decline would lead to long term prosperity and stability for Judah. Although there is some debate among scholars whether Jeremiah began his ministry in the thirteenth year of Josiah, internal evidence seems to indicate that Jeremiah was an early supporter of the religious reforms that occurred under Josiah.
Jeremiah was the son of Hilkiah. He was born in Anathoth, a village in Benjamin, about three miles northeast of Jerusalem. His father was probably a descendant of Abiathar, the priest from Anathoth banished by Solomon because of his support of Adonijah in his bid for David’s throne. Thus, it is probable that Jeremiah and his family were descendants of a very influential family of exiled priests.
Jeremiah probably was born around 742 B.C. and was called to the prophetic ministry in the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign (627 B.C.). He was a young man when King Josiah began his reforms in 622 B.C. According to 2 Chronicles 35:25, Jeremiah composed a song of lament at the occasion of Josiah’s death.
Although Jeremiah supported Josiah and the goals of Josiah’s reforms, he realized that the results of the reforms were superficial and inadequate to produce real changes in the religion of Judah. For this reason Jeremiah condemned the superficial commitment of the people and their lack of true repentance.
Jeremiah was shocked at the apostasy of the people. His oracles warned the nation about Yahweh’s displeasure with the religious behavior of the people. Jeremiah proclaimed that God’s punishment upon the nation for her apostasy would come from the north: Judah was under God’s judgment.
Jeremiah’s ministry occurred mostly in Jerusalem, where he remained even after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. until after the death of Gedaliah, the governor of Judah, in 582 B.C., when he was taken by force to Egypt, where he died.
Jeremiah’s relationship with some of the Judean kings was turbulent. Jeremiah was opposed to the policies of Jehoiakim, the son of Josiah to the point of open hostility. Jehoiakim had abandoned the religious reforms of his father and reinstituted some of the pagan practices Josiah had eliminated. Jehoiakim also abandoned the covenantal commitment the nations had made to serve Yahweh alone. Jeremiah believed Judean servitude to Babylonia was the judgment brought by Yahweh as punishment for the people’s rebellion and for their violation of the demands of the covenant. For this reason, Jeremiah criticized Jehoiakim’s repudiation of his fealty treaty with Nebuchadnezzar, emphasizing that his violation of the treaty was as a sign of his disloyalty to Yahweh. Jeremiah also criticized Jehoiakim for his oppression of the people. Jeremiah’s relationship with Jehoiachin and Zedekiah was no better.
Jeremiah, like the great prophets before him, was distressed by the infidelity of the royal house and the people against God. The people had no sense of guilt for their sins; they had no feelings of shame for their actions. The people of Judah said: “I am innocent” but the LORD said: “’Behold, I will bring you to judgment for saying, ‘I have not sinned’” (Jeremiah 2:35).
Jeremiah heard Yahweh’s voice calling him to proclaim to a rebellious people what he was about to do. God’s action was intended to bring Judah back to the traditions of the covenant. Jeremiah urged the people to submit to Nebuchadnezzar whom he saw as the Lord’s servant who came to exact retribution on behalf of Yahweh. Jeremiah proclaimed: “If, however, any nation or kingdom will not serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon or bow its neck under his yoke, I will punish that nation with the sword, famine and plague, declares the LORD, until I destroy it by his hand” ( Jeremiah 27:8).
For Jeremiah, complete submission to Nebuchadnezzar was the will of Yahweh for Judah. Submission to the Babylonian yoke was the prelude that would motivate Judah to return to the demands of the covenant which required the nation to recognize Yahweh as the only God of Israel and which required obedience to his words: “If you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples” (Exodus 19:5).
A major role of prophets of the Old Testament was to serve as intermediaries between Yahweh and the people. The prophets’ words impacted themselves and their societies in two ways. First, when the prophets spoke, they spoke as Yahweh’s representatives. Their message was Yahweh’s message. They augmented their authority as messengers by following the tradition of the prophets who preceded them. Secondly, their message sought to have a positive effect on their society by bringing about religious reforms and social change.
Like many of the prophets who preceded him, Jeremiah was considered an outcast in Judah. Jeremiah was on the fringe of society, disliked by many, including some members of his own family, and he became a source of great irritation to the ruling class in Judah. Prophets like Jeremiah, generally operated on the edges of society, usually preaching a message of doom. They spoke of Yahweh’s anger, his judgment, and his freedom to act as he wills. They also proclaimed that Yahweh was a gracious God and the Redeemer of Israel. Any prophet who proclaimed a message of doom provoked the hostility and outrage of prophets who preached an optimistic message. Jeremiah was no exception in being the recipient of much hostility because of his message of submission to Babylon.
While Jeremiah was proclaiming the coming judgment and submission to Nebuchadnezzar, other prophets in Judah were soothing the people’s consciences by proclaiming a message of salvation and declaring that Yahweh was their faithful protector. One such prophet was Hananiah.
Studies on Jeremiah and Hananiah
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary