Jeremiah, Hebrew Yirmeyahu (650-570 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 b.c. and the exile of many Judaeans to Babylonia.
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.
The era in which Jeremiah lived was one of transition for the ancient Near East. The Assyrian empire, which had been dominant for two centuries, declined and fell. Its capital, Nineveh, was captured in 612 by the Babylonians and Medes.
Egypt had a brief period of resurgence under the 26th dynasty (664–525) but did not prove strong enough to establish an empire. The new world power was the Neo-Babylonian empire, ruled by a Chaldean dynasty whose best known king was Nebuchadrezzar.
The small and comparatively insignificant state of Judah had been a vassal of Assyria and, when Assyria declined, asserted its independence for a short time. Subsequently Judah vacillated in its allegiance between Babylonia and Egypt and ultimately became a province of the Neo-Babylonian empire.
According to the biblical Book of Jeremiah, he began his prophetic career in 627/626—the 13th year of King Josiah’s reign. It is told there that he responded to Yahweh’s (God’s) call to prophesy 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.”
A few scholars believe that after his call Jeremiah served as an official prophet in the Temple, but most believe that this is unlikely in view of his sharp criticism of priests, prophets, and the Temple cult.
Jeremiah’s early messages to the people were condemnations of them for their false worship and social injustice, with summons to repentance. He proclaimed the coming of a foe from the north, symbolized by a boiling pot facing from the north in one of his visions, that would cause great destruction.
This foe has often been identified with the Scythians, nomads from southern Russia who supposedly descended into western Asia in the 7th century and attacked Palestine. Some scholars have identified the northern foe with the Medes, the Assyrians, or the Chaldeans (Babylonians); others have interpreted his message as vague eschatological predictions, not concerning a specific people.
In 621 King Josiah instituted far-reaching reforms based upon a book discovered in the Temple of Jerusalem in the course of building repairs, which 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”).
Jeremiah’s attitude toward these reforms is difficult to assess. Clearly, he would have found much in them with which to agree; a passage in chapter 11 of Jeremiah, in which he is called on by Yahweh to urge adherence to the ancient Covenant upon “the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem,” is frequently interpreted as indicating that the prophet traveled around Jerusalem and the villages of Judah exhorting the people to follow the reforms.
If this was the case, Jeremiah later became disillusioned with the reforms because they dealt too largely with the externals of religion and not with the inner spirit and ethical conduct of the people. He may have relapsed into a period of silence for several years because of the indifferent success of the reforms and the failure of his prophecies concerning the foe from the north to materialize.
Some scholars doubt that Jeremiah’s career actually began as early as 627/626 B.C. and question the accuracy of the dates in the biblical account. This view arises from the difficulty of identifying the foe from the north, which seems likely to have been the Babylonians of a later time, as well as the difficulty of determining the prophet’s attitude toward the Deuteronomic reforms and of assigning messages of Jeremiah to the reign of Josiah.
In the opinion of such scholars, Jeremiah 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, chapter 7, verses 1 to 15, the other in chapter 26, verses 1 to 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.
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.
Near the time of the Battle of Carchemish, in 605, when the Babylonians decisively defeated the Egyptians and the remnant of the Assyrians, Jeremiah delivered an oracle against Egypt. Realizing that this battle made a great difference in the world situation, Jeremiah soon dictated to his scribe, Baruch, a scroll containing all of the messages he had delivered to this time.
The scroll was read by Baruch in the Temple. Subsequently it was read before King Jehoiakim, who cut it into pieces and burned it. Jeremiah went into hiding and dictated another scroll, with additions.
When Jehoiakim withheld tribute from the Babylonians (about 601), 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, Nebuchadrezzar 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, and was taken to Babylonia with many of his subjects.
The Babylonians placed on the throne of Judah a king favorable to them, Zedekiah (597–586 b.c.), 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.
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 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.
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 Babylonians 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.
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” (Jer. 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 considered sin to be unnatural; 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 coventional loyalty to Yahweh. Repentance thus had a strong ethical coloring, since it meant living in obedience to Yahweh’s will for the individual and the nation.
In the latter part of his career Jeremiah had to struggle against the despair of his people and give them hope for the future. He expressed his own hope vividly by an action that he undertook when the Babylonians were besieging Jerusalem and he was in prison.
He bought, from a cousin, a field in Anathoth, his native town. 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.
Jeremiah’s most important prophecy concerning the future is one regarding the New Covenant (Jer. 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 tables 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.”