The Background of Jeremiah
Author and Date
Jeremiah was called to be a prophet c. 627 BC, when he was young (Jeremiah 1:6). He served for more than 40 years (Jeremiah 1:2–3). Jeremiah had a difficult life. His messages of repentance delivered at the temple were not well received (Jeremiah 7:1–8:3; 26:1–11). His hometown plotted against him (Jeremiah 11:18–23), and he endured much persecution (Jeremiah 20:1–6; 37:11–38:13; 43:1–7). At God’s command, he never married (Jeremiah 16:1–4). Although he preached God’s Word faithfully, he apparently had only two converts: Baruch, his scribe (Jeremiah 32:12; 36:1–4; 45:1–5); and Ebed-melech, an Ethiopian eunuch who served the king (Jeremiah 38:7–13; 39:15–18). Though the book does not reveal the time or place of Jeremiah’s death, he probably died in Egypt, where he had been taken by his countrymen against his will after the fall of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 43:1–7). He most likely did not live to see the devastation he mentions in ch. 46–51.
Jeremiah and Baruch left a record of the difficult times in which they lived, God’s message for those times, and God’s message for the future of Israel and the nations.
1. God and Humanity
God alone is a living God. God alone made the world. All other so-called gods are mere idols (Jeremiah 10:1–16). This Creator God called Israel to a special relationship (ch. 2–6), gave her his holy Word, and promised to bless her temple with his name and presence (Jeremiah 7:1–8:3). God rules both the present and the future (Jeremiah 1:4–16; 29:1–10), protects his chosen ones (Jeremiah 1:17–19; 29:11–14; 39:15–18; 45:1–5), and saves those who turn to him (Jeremiah 12:14–17). Because God is absolutely trustworthy and always keeps his promises, his grace triumphs over sin and judgment when people repent and turn to him.
The human heart is sick, and no one except God can cure it (Jeremiah 17:9–10). The nations worship idols instead of their Creator (Jeremiah 10:1–16). Israel, God’s covenant people, went after other gods (ch. 2–6), defiled the temple by their unwillingness to repent (Jeremiah 7:1–8:3; 26:1–11), and oppressed one another (Jeremiah 34:8–16). Since Israel and the nations have sinned against God (Jeremiah 25:1–26), God the Creator is also the Judge of every nation on the earth he created (ch. 46–51).
2. Old Covenant, Messiah, and New Covenant
God made a covenant with Israel, based on his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Genesis 12–50). As time passed, God’s covenant with Israel included his promise to David of an eternal kingdom (2 Samuel 7; 1 Chronicles 17). God used Jeremiah to deliver the good news that, sometime in the future, God would “make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31). This covenant would be different in one major way. The new covenant partners will not break the covenant, as most of the old partners did even though God was completely faithful (Jeremiah 31:32). Instead, the new covenant partners will have the Word of God so ingrained in their hearts through God’s power that they will know and follow God all their lives (Jeremiah 31:33–34).
Thus, all the new covenant partners will be believers who are forgiven and empowered by God; he will “remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). Hebrews 8:8–12 quotes Jeremiah 31:31–34 as evidence that the new covenant has come through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The coming of Jesus the Messiah fulfills God’s promises to Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets.
I. Introduction (1:1–19)
II. Israel’s Covenantal Adultery (2:1–6:30)
III. False Religion and an Idolatrous People (7:1–10:25)
IV. Jeremiah’s Struggles with God and Judah (11:1–20:18)
V. Jeremiah’s Confrontations (21:1–29:32)
VI. Restoration for Judah and Israel (30:1–33:26)
VII. God Judges Judah (34:1–45:5)
VIII. God’s Judgment on the Nations (46:1–51:64)
IX. Conclusion: The Fall of Jerusalem (52:1–34)
Israel and Judah at the Time of Jeremiah
The Global Message of Jeremiah
Jeremiah in Redemptive History
Jeremiah lived and prophesied in the sixth century BC, in the days leading up to the exile of Judah to Babylon, and then in the wake of that tragic event. Jeremiah’s prophecy exposes the rebellious hearts of God’s own people, which has led to their impending exile to a foreign land. This rebelliousness goes all the way back to Eden, where the first human couple likewise rebelled against their Maker and Lord. Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden when they rebelled, and the same fate is falling on God’s corporate people as they are exiled from the Promised Land.
God’s Covenant Promises
The reason this exile is so devastating is that at the heart of God’s covenant promises to Abraham was the promise of the land of Canaan. When God’s people are driven out of this land, it seems as though God’s own promises are coming unraveled. Yet throughout Jeremiah we find that God’s strong statements of judgment are surpassed by his pledge of mercy. He will not abandon his people, no matter how sinful they remain. Indeed, the radical problem of sin requires a radical solution—nothing less than the Lord himself writing his law not on tablets of stone but on the very hearts of his people (Jeremiah 31:33–34; compare 2 Corinthians 3:6). So it is that, at the climax of Jeremiah, we are reassured of God’s determination to restore his people to himself (Jeremiah 30–33).
God’s Final Answer
This restoration includes a promise of causing “a righteous Branch to spring up for David” who “shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jeremiah 33:15). Ultimately, the tension between the people’s stubborn waywardness and God’s unbreakable covenant promises is resolved only in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God’s promise of a permanent Davidic heir is fulfilled (2 Samuel 7:12–16; Jeremiah 33:14–26). Christ is the true and final “righteous Branch” who proves fruitful where Israel proved fruitless (Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15; John 15:1). Only through his atoning work is God able to extend mercy to his people in spite of their sin.
God’s Worldwide Redemption
Jeremiah looks forward not only to the coming of Jesus Christ, the true heir of David, but also to the worldwide extension of grace through Jesus far beyond the national borders of Israel. Through Christ and the fulfillment of God’s promises, God’s promise to Abraham that in him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” begins to be fulfilled (Genesis 12:3). God will judge the nations for their sin, as he must (Jeremiah 46:1–51:64). Indeed, he will also judge Judah, who has proven to be as wicked as the nations surrounding her (Jeremiah 21:1–29:32). Yet through and despite such judgment God will not be deterred from his ultimate purpose of calling to himself a people from every tribe and language and race and nation (Revelation 5:9; see Jeremiah 3:16–17).
Universal Themes in Jeremiah
The Promise-Keeping God
Jeremiah’s prophecy resounds with the theme of God as the great keeper of promises. When God makes a covenant with the nation of Israel, he will not let that relationship be thwarted, even when his people are faithless. The pledge “I will be your God, and you shall be my people” is the constant promise of God to wayward Israel throughout the book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 7:23; 11:4; 30:22). This is great encouragement to God’s people around the world today, for they have become the heirs of God’s covenant promises to ethnic Israel. No matter how others identify us socially, ethnically, or racially, believers today can know that, through Christ, the God of the Bible will be our God, and we will be his people.
Sin as Hard-Heartedness
Throughout the book of Jeremiah the focus shifts back and forth from God’s own covenant people to the nations. In both cases, however, the same fundamental problem persists. Both are sinful. Both have hard, stubborn hearts (Jeremiah 5:23; 11:8; 18:12). While the nations may be uncircumcised physically, Judah is uncircumcised spiritually (Jeremiah 9:25–26; see also 4:4; 6:10). This hard-heartedness is seen in Jeremiah especially through the hypocrisy of Israel’s leaders—the artificial service and hollow religiosity of the prophets, priests, and other officials (Jeremiah 3:10; 5:2; 7:1–4).
The Inclusion of Gentiles in the People of God
Jeremiah’s prophecy helps to advance God’s promise to Abraham that he would be a blessing, and that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him (Genesis 12:1–3). Jeremiah was to go to the nations both “to destroy and to overthrow” as well as “to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10). Israel will multiply and increase in the land (Jeremiah 3:16; compare God’s original call to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28) and “Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the Lord, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the Lord” (Jeremiah 3:17). To God “shall the nations come from the ends of the earth” (Jeremiah 16:19). This inclusion of the nations is one reason God shows mercy to Judah: if they return to the Lord, “then nations shall bless themselves in him, and in him shall they glory” (Jeremiah 4:2).
The Global Message of Jeremiah for Today
The hard-heartedness of God’s people manifests itself not only vertically (toward God) but also horizontally (toward other people). “This people has a stubborn and rebellious heart,” and as a result “they have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of evil; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless . . . and they do not defend the rights of the needy” (Jeremiah 5:23, 28). The church can learn from the book of Jeremiah about God’s tender heart toward the oppressed. We also learn of his desire for his own people to be mediators of mercy to those who are marginalized and disadvantaged. Indeed, knowing God includes, by definition, the defense of “the cause of the poor and needy” (Jeremiah 22:16).
As the global church labors on gladly in its great mission to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18–20), we must recognize the need for God to do a deep, cleansing work of the heart in creating new people for himself. When people profess faith in Christ, they must be taught as well about the divine cleansing of the heart that is effected through his indwelling Holy Spirit. In the new covenant that has dawned in Christ (Hebrews 8:8–13; 9:15) we find that forgiveness of sins and the writing of God’s law on the heart are closely connected. The gospel saves men and women of all ethnicities by wiping away their sins and by implanting within them new desires for God and holiness. The sinful hard-heartedness of all people cannot be altered in any humanly manufactured way (Jeremiah 13:23). A new internal work on the heart by God is required (Jeremiah 31:31–34). As global Christians speak the good news to those in their own neighborhoods and around the world, we do so in utter dependence on God, knowing that only he can soften hearts—and that he loves to do so.