Jeremiah - The ‘Weeping Prophet’
Jeremiah, another of the major Judaean prophets and like the prophets written about over the last two weeks, was born into a priestly family. He was born in 650BC to Hilkiah, who was a hereditary village priest at the time of King Josiah, in Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin north of Jerusalem. Jeremiah came on the scene around 100 years after Isaiah. He was called to be a prophet at the age of 23 in 627BC.
The calling / God’s manifestation to Jeremiah
Jeremiah’s call to prophesy can be found in Jeremiah 1:4-5
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
Jeremiah is often referred to as the ‘reluctant/weeping prophet’. He was from the beginning a reluctant prophet (Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord).
He does not seem to be made of the stern stuff prophets are supposed to be made of. Marriage was forbidden to him by God.
From these and other passages we glimpse the sheer burden of the task he had to bear - God’s calling to speak out against the actions and practices of the Jews in Judah.
“Get yourself ready! Stand up and say to them whatever I command you. Do not be terrified by them, or I will terrify you before them. Today I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land—against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land. They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord.
Jeremiah’s prophecies can be pinpointed to span some of the period of King Josiah’s reign and through the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah, down to Zedekiah another son of Josiah, when the people of Jerusalem went into exile. Essentially, the last five kings of Judah.
King Josiah ascended the throne at age 8 and Jeremiah was called during Josiah’s thirteenth year of rule putting Josiah at 21 when Jeremiah became a prophet. Jeremiah’s ministry lasted approximately 40 years.
The central theme of Jeremiah’s prophecies were:
God’s remonstrations of the people of Judah’s departure from devotion to him;
His impending judgement on them for this departure through captivity and exile; and
His ultimate love and mercy through the restoration of Judah to their native soil.
1. God's remonstrations
“What fault did your ancestors find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves.
Through Jeremiah, God’s disappointment with the people of Judah is evident.
“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.
God reminds them of their earlier devotion and love for him during the years of freedom from the tyranny of Egypt, walking with them through the wilderness and bringing them to the promise land.
“But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable.”
Jeremiah during this period of God’s remonstrations, appealed to God on behalf of the Jews in Judah that the prophets before him and others in his time were prophesying that they would not see the sword or suffer famine. That God will give his people lasting peace in this place. God’s response to Jeremiah was clear
“The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them. They are prophesying to you false visions, divinations, idolatries and the delusions of their own minds. Those same prophets will perish by sword and famine.”
2. God's judgement on Judah
As a result, Jeremiah prophesied warnings of God’s judgement on them through impending captivity from the North. He kept reminding them of the fate that befell Israel at Shiloh and how it now stands desolate. Shiloh was a powerful indicator of what was coming to Judah.
People of Israel,” declares the Lord, “I am bringing a distant nation against you - an ancient and enduring nation, a people whose language you do not know, whose speech you do not understand.”
And when the people ask, ‘Why has the Lord our God done all this to us?’ you will tell them,
‘As you have forsaken me and served foreign gods in your own land, so now you will serve foreigners in a land not your own.’
“I will forsake my house, abandon my inheritance; I will give the one I love into the hands of her enemies.”
It was after King Josiah’s death that Judah began to fall. Josiah’s death at the hand of the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho had been a tragic moment for Judah and, specifically, the prophet Jeremiah. In fact, the book of Lamentations was written as a result of Josiah's death. Josiah was the last righteous king of Judah. Jeremiah realised that with this upright leader gone, the horrifying prophecies of Judah’s downfall would be postponed no longer. The defeat by the Babylonians of Pharaoh Necho who wanted to fight with the Assyrians against the Babylonians only served as a catalyst to the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecies against the people of Judah. Pharaoh in his anger, deposed Jehoahaz who took over the throne upon his father’s (Josiah) death and replaced him with Jehoiakim, Josiah’s other son.
Jehoiakim was not sympathetic to his father’s call to the people of Judah to live a righteous life.
Again, through Jeremiah, God gives the people of Judah an opportunity to reform and repent so He would not unleash judgement against them.
“Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever.”
Like his predecessors warnings, Jeremiah's warning fell on deaf ears and riled up the establishment in Jehoiakim’s court.
Truth be told, Jeremiah was a widely hated man of his day. His predictions of the fall of Jerusalem and pleas for peaceful surrender to Babylon caused Judah’s ruling classes to loathe him. In fact, they brought together a special counsel and plotted to kill Jeremiah instead. God revealed this to Jeremiah and condemned the people of Anathoth to death - the men were to die by the sword and the women by famine. Not even one was to be spared.
And so, Jeremiah’s prophecies began to materialise.
The political landscape in the region was changing. The then strong Assyrian kingdom was weakening, and Babylon and Egypt were emerging as the new power houses in the region. Babylon wanted to ensure Judah’s allegiance and the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar initial’s encounter with Judah was under Jehoiakim’s reign, to ensure Judah’s submission to Babylon and not Egypt. Jehoiakim’s rebellion against Babylon later resulted in a long siege against Judah by king Nebuchadnezzar around 597 BC, when he captured Jerusalem. In addition to the riches of the city and Temple, he claimed as spoils of war thousands of Judeans, including the king and court. It was at this same time that Daniel and his three friends were also captured. This would have put Jeremiah at the time as age 53 years. Only the poor people who owned nothing were left behind to be vinedressers and tillers of the soil. The number of people who went into exile to Babylon was 4,600.
Jeremiah, given the choice, opted to remain with the remnant of Judah rather than be taken to Babylon. Jehoiakim was replaced with Jeconiah and then Zedekiah both of which were left wanting in God’s eyes.
It was under Zedekiah that the remnants of Judah came under siege again and Zedekiah and his sons killed by the Babylonians. King Nebuchadnezzar installed one of his generals to govern the captured Judean provinces. A few years later, this governor was killed by a couple of Jews led by Ishmael. It was this act that generated fear of retribution by the Babylonians and the Jews came to Jeremiah for guidance. Jeremiah sought God’s counsel whose instruction was to remain where they were (Judaean cities), submit to the Babylonian rule and that no further harm would come to them. That under no circumstances, as they were planning, were they to escape to Egypt.
Understandably, God knew, the remnants emigration to Egypt would not put them on the much-needed path to reconciliation with him but reinforce their idolatry practices and furthermore, the Babylonians were on the path to conquer Egypt which meant the Jews would not be safe there.
This message was understandably not welcomed in certain echelons of the Jewish establishment, Azariah in particular, accused Jeremiah of lying.
“You are lying! The Lord our God has not sent you to say, ‘You must not go to Egypt to settle there.’ But Baruch son of Neriah is inciting you against us to hand us over to the Babylonians, so they may kill us or carry us into exile to Babylon.
Well! You guessed it. They did not listen, and all gathered up and set off to Egypt - Jeremiah included. Again, God through Jeremiah, spoke to the remnant in Egypt.
“Yet I persistently sent to you all my servants the prophets, saying, ‘I beg you not to do this abominable thing I hate!’ But they did not listen or pay attention; they did not turn from their wickedness or stop burning incense to other gods. Therefore, my fierce anger was poured out; it raged against the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem and made them the desolate ruins they are today.
Again, God’s judgement was upon the people of Judah.
"I will take away the remnant of Judah who were determined to go to Egypt to settle there. They will all perish in Egypt; they will fall by the sword or die from famine. From the least to the greatest, they will die by sword or famine. They will become a curse and an object of horror, a curse and an object of reproach. I will punish those who live in Egypt with the sword, famine and plague, as I punished Jerusalem. None of the remnant of Judah who have gone to live in Egypt will escape or survive to return to the land of Judah, to which they long to return and live; none will return except a few fugitives.”
3. God's promise of restoration
At the most tragic moment of Jeremiah’s life, when, in Babylon's final attack, all the leaders were taken off into exile, he writes astonishing words of hope: 'God declares: I shall bring you back to the place from which I exiled you'.
As always, God’s everlasting mercy transcends even the greatest transgressions with his promise of restoration. That God would eventually restore them to their native soil.
“However, the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when it will no longer be said, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt,’ but it will be said, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.’ For I will restore them to the land I gave their ancestors.”
Jeremiah, though mockingly called "Terror on every side'. from his repeated warnings, staked his personal faith on God's future restoration of Israel by buying a field in Judah before his exile to Egypt and carefully preserved the deeds. He points to the promise of God the other side of destruction.
This is what the Lord God says: When 70 years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. ‘For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope'.
That hope was powerfully expressed to the exiled Jews in Babylon in the vision of the two baskets of figs. Many of whom settled on tributaries of the Euphrates, which inspired the words of Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” They couldn’t understand why salvation and restoration to Jerusalem would not come in their lifetime.
It wasn’t until 70 years after their exile to Babylon and Egypt that the people of Judah returned to their homeland.
There is no mention of Jeremiah’s death anywhere in the Bible. Many conclude that he simply died in Egypt. Today, Jeremiah is revered as one of the greatest men of the Bible