To set Jeremiah in context in the Old Testament, see: The Kings and the Prophets

Who was Jeremiah?

The role of a prophet was a high calling, but one that brought persecution, ridicule, and harm. Jeremiah’s calling occurred during the disastrous time of Babylonian oppression and their transport to Babylon.

The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjaminto whom the word of the Lord came in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reignIt came also in the days of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah until the end of the eleventh year of King Zedekiah son of Josiah of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month.

Jeremiah’s Call and Commission

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 

But the Lord said to me,

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy,’
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.

Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
            says the Lord.”

“The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. It came also in the days of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah until the end of the eleventh year of King Zedekiah son of Josiah of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month” (Jeremiah 1:1-8 NRSVUE).

627/626 BCE/B.C.—the 13th year of King Josiah’s reign, when Josiah was twenty-one years old, and Jeremiah was called. He somewhere between thirteen and seventeen when his ministry began.

Imagine being called into ministry in the royal court of your land when you're a teenager. The King himself is only twenty-one, and the two of you begin to reform your country which has fallen away from the Lord. But then . . .… Click To Tweet

Jeremiah, Hebrew Yirmeyahu, (born most probably after 650 BCE/650 B.C., Anathoth, Judahdied c. 570 BCE/570 B.C., Egypt), Hebrew prophet, reformer, and author of a Biblical book that bears his name. He was closely involved in the political and religious events of a crucial era in the history of the ancient Near East; his spiritual leadership helped his fellow countrymen survive disasters that included the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE/586 B.C. and the exile of many Judaeans to Babylonia.” (Source)

Life and times

Jeremiah was born and grew up in the village of Anathoth, a few miles northeast of Jerusalem in a priestly family. In his childhood he must have learned some of the traditions of his people, particularly the prophecies of Hosea, whose influence can be seen in his early messages.

In 621 B.C. King Josiah instituted far-reaching reforms based upon a book discovered in the Temple of Jerusalem in the course of building repairs. The book was probably Deuteronomy or some part of it. Josiah’s reforms included the purification of worship from pagan practices, the centralization of all sacrificial rites in the Temple of Jerusalem, and perhaps an effort to establish social justice following principles of earlier prophets (this program constituted what has been called “the Deuteronomic reforms”). (Source)

Deuteronomy is the fifth book of canonical Jewish and Christian Scripture containing narrative and Mosaic laws. These laws were being broken, and now The Book had been found. The words there would help the priests to define sin, what is sin and what isn’t, for the people.

The book had been “lost” by either Josiah’s father Amon, or his grandfather Manasseh, both men who did not love the Lord, did not want to obey His Laws, and chose paganism and idolatry over true faith.

When King Josiah, who had begun many reforms in the land, was killed in battle at Carchemish, this was a devastating blow to Jeremiah, for, at last, a king sat upon the throne who listened to the Word of the Lord as delivered to Jeremiah and the other prophets. Josiah was the first godly king who loved the Lord since the reign of Hezekiah, dated 715–687 BCE.

After Josiah’s death, Jeremiah also uttered a lament for Josiah, and all the singing men and singing women have spoken of Josiah in their laments to this day. They made these a custom in Israel; they are recorded in the Laments” (2 Chronicles 25:35 NRSVUE).

Jeremiah, painted by Michelangelo

Jeremiah, painted by Michelangelo Alinari/Art Resource, New York

“According to the biblical Book of Jeremiah, he began his prophetic career in 627/626—the 13th year of King Josiah’s reign, when Josiah was twenty-one years old. It is told there that he responded to Yahweh’s (God’s) call to prophecy by protesting, “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth,” but he received Yahweh’s assurance that he would put his own words into Jeremiah’s mouth and make him a “prophet to the nations.” (source)

Jeremiah’s early messages to the people were condemnations of them for their false worship and social injustice, with summons to repentance. He began to prophesy toward the end of the reign of Josiah or at the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim (609–598).

“Early in the reign of Jehoiakim, Jeremiah delivered his famous “Temple sermon,” of which there are two versions, one in Jeremiah 7:1–15 and the other in Jeremiah 26:1–24. He denounced the people for their dependence on the Temple for security and called on them to effect genuine ethical reform. He predicted that God would destroy the Temple of Jerusalem, as he had earlier destroyed that of Shiloh, if they continued in their present path. Jeremiah was immediately arrested and tried on a capital charge. He was acquitted but may have been forbidden to preach again in the Temple” (Source).

Daniel agreed with and supported this prophecy of Jeremiah: “I, Daniel, perceived in the books the number of years that, according to the word of the Lord to the prophet Jeremiah, must be fulfilled for the devastation of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years” (Daniel 9:2 NRSVUE).

“The reign of Jehoiakim was an active and difficult period in Jeremiah’s life. That king was very different from his father, the reforming Josiah, whom Jeremiah commended for doing justice and righteousness. Jeremiah denounced Jehoiakim harshly for his selfishness, materialism, and practice of social injustice” (Source).

When Jehoiakim withheld tribute from the Babylonians about 601 BCE/B.C., Jeremiah began to warn the Judaeans that they would be destroyed at the hands of those who had previously been their friends. When the king persisted in resisting Babylonia, Nebuchadnezzar sent an army to besiege Jerusalem. King Jehoiakim died before the siege began and was succeeded by his son,Jehoiachin, who surrendered the capital to the Babylonians on March 16, 597 BCE/B.C., and was taken to Babylonia with many of his subjects.

The Babylonians placed on the throne of Judah a king favourable to them, Zedekiah (597–586 BCE), who was more inclined to follow Jeremiah’s counsel than Jehoiakim had been but was weak and vacillating and whose court was torn by conflict between pro-Babylonian and pro-Egyptian parties. After paying Babylonia tribute for nearly 10 years, the king made an alliance with Egypt. A second time Nebuchadrezzar sent an army to Jerusalem, which he captured in August 586 BCE/B.C..

“Early in Zedekiah’s reign, Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles in Babylonia, advising them not to expect to return immediately to their homeland, as false prophets were encouraging them to believe, but to settle peaceably in their place of exile and seek the welfare of their captors. When emissaries from surrounding states came to Judah in 594 B.C./BCE to enlist Judah’s support in rebellion against Babylonia, Jeremiah put a yoke upon his neck and went around proclaiming that Judah and the surrounding states should submit to the yoke of Babylonia, for it was Yahweh who had given them into the hand of the king of Babylonia. Even to the time of the fall of Jerusalem, Jeremiah’s message remained the same: submit to the yoke of Babylonia.” (Source)

Thus says the Lord: Those who stay in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, but those who go out to the Chaldeans shall live; they shall have their lives as a prize of war and live” (Jeremiah 38:2 NRSVUE).

When the siege of Jerusalem was temporarily lifted at the approach of an Egyptian force, Jeremiah started to leave Jerusalem to go to the land of the tribe of Benjamin. He was arrested on a charge of desertion and placed in prison. Subsequently he was placed in an abandoned cistern, where he would have died had it not been for the prompt action of an Ethiopian eunuch, Ebed-melech, who rescued the prophet with the king’s permission and put him in a less confining place. King Zedekiah summoned him from prison twice for secret interviews, and both times Jeremiah advised him to surrender to Babylonia.

When Jerusalem finally fell, Jeremiah was released from prison by the Chaldeans and offered safe conduct to Babylonia, but he preferred to remain with his own people. So he was entrusted to Gedaliah, a Judaean from a prominent family whom the Babylonians appointed as governor of the province of Judah. The prophet continued to oppose those who wanted to rebel against Babylonia and promised the people a bright and joyful future.

After Gedaliah was assassinated, Jeremiah was taken against his will to Egypt by some of the Jews who feared reprisal from the Babylonians. Even in Egypt he continued to rebuke his fellow exiles. Jeremiah probably died about 570 B.C.. According to a tradition that is preserved in extra-biblical sources, he was stoned to death by his exasperated fellow countrymen in Egypt.” (Source)

Prophetic vocation and message

“This sketch of Jeremiah’s life portrays him as a courageous and persistent prophet who often had to endure physical suffering for his fidelity to the prophetic call. He also suffered inner doubts and conflicts, as his own words reveal, especially those passages that are usually called his “confessions” (Jeremiah 11:18–12:6; 15:10–21; 17:9–10, 14–18; 18:18–23; 20:7–12, 14–18).

They reveal a strong conflict between Jeremiah’s natural inclinations and his deep sense of vocation to deliver Yahweh’s message to the people.

Jeremiah was by nature sensitive, introspective, and perhaps shy. He was denied participation in the ordinary joys and sorrows of his fellowmen and did not marry. He thus could say, “I sat alone,” with God’s hand upon him. Jeremiah had periods of despondency when he expressed the wish that he had never been born or that he might run away and live alone in the desert. He reached the point of calling God “a deceitful brook,…waters that fail” and even accused God of deceiving and overpowering him. Yet there were times of exaltation when he could say to God, “Thy words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart,” and he could speak of Yahweh as “a dread warrior” fighting by his side.

“As a prophet, Jeremiah pronounced God’s judgment upon the people of his time for their wickedness. He was concerned especially with false and insincere worship and failure to trust Yahweh in national affairs. He denounced social injustices but not so much as some previous prophets, such as Amos and Micah. He found the source of sin to be in the weakness and corruption of the hearts of men—in what he often called “the stubbornness of the evil heart.” He emphasized that some foreign nations were more loyal to their pagan (false) deities than Judah was to Yahweh (the real God), and he often contrasted nature’s obedience to law with man’s disobedience to God.

“Jeremiah had more to say about repentance than any other prophet. He called upon men to turn away from their wicked ways and dependence upon idols and false gods and return to their early covenantal loyalty to Yahweh.

“In the latter part of his career, Jeremiah had to struggle against the despair of his people and give them hope for the future. In the presence of witnesses, he weighed out the money and made the contracts and said, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land’ In this and other ways he expressed his hope for a bright future for Israel in its own land.” (Source)

Jeremiah’s most important prophecy concerning the future is one regarding the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31–34). While the present literary form of the passage is probably not Jeremiah’s, the thought is essentially his.

He prophesied of a time when Yahweh would make a covenant with Israel, superseding the old Mosaic Covenant; Yahweh would write his law upon the hearts of men (rather than on tablets of stone), and all would know God directly and receive his forgiveness. This New Covenant prophecy was very influential in New Testament times. It is quoted in the Letter to the Hebrews and lies behind words attributed to Jesus at the Last Supper: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” (Source)

Jeremiah 31:31-34 lies behind words that Jesus spoke at the Last Supper as He passed the cup to His disciples: "This cup of the new covenant in my blood" #MessiahJesus #forgiveness #bgbg2 Click To Tweet

The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah the prophet concerning the nations.

“2 About Egypt. Concerning the army of Pharaoh Neco, king of Egypt, which was by the river Euphrates at Carchemish and which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon defeated in the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah . . .

“7 “Who is this, rising like the Nile,
like rivers whose waters surge?
8 Egypt rises like the Nile,
like rivers whose waters surge.
He said, ‘I will rise, I will cover the earth,
I will destroy cities and their inhabitants.’
9 Advance, O horses,
and rage, O chariots!
Let the warriors go out:
men of Cush and Put who handle the shield,
men of Lud, skilled in handling the bow.
10 That day is the day of the Lord God of hosts,
a day of vengeance,
to avenge himself on his foes.
The sword shall devour and be sated
and drink its fill of their blood.
For the Lord God of hosts holds a sacrifice
in the north country by the river Euphrates.

11 Go up to Gilead, and take balm,
O virgin daughter of Egypt!
In vain you have used many medicines;
there is no healing for you.

12 The nations have heard of your shame,
and the earth is full of your cry;
for warrior has stumbled against warrior;
they have both fallen together.”
(Jeremiah 46:2,7-12)

Source: (Britannica) By J. Philip HyattThe Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica,

Britannica: Jeremiah, Hebrew Prophet.

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