Jeremiah – the background
Last time we looked at the covenants that God made with Israel. As we understand how these covenants form the relationship between God and Israel, they help us to understand why things played out the way they did in Jeremiah’s day.
Before we start looking at chapter 1, it seems sensible to grasp the history that took place during the time of Jeremiah’s work. We’ll look at this from the perspective of the nations, the kings of Israel and Jeremiah himself.
- The nations
Jeremiah’s call came in 627 BC – and ended sometime after 586 BC: about 40 years in total. During that period, Israel was in some ways the small guy in a sandwich of three bigger and more powerful nations. At the beginning of Jeremiah’s ministry, the top dog was the Assyrian nation. They were located northeast of Israel and had dominated the Near Middle East for some time. The northern tribes of Israel had been defeated and subjugated by the Assyrians in 722 BC – this was in judgement for their persistent Godlessness. During that time, the southern tribe of Judah (and Benjamin) were spared. Nonetheless, the Assyrians had been the undisputed rulers throughout that part of the world but as with every power, by the time of Jeremiah, they had seen their best days. In fact, even before Jeremiah was born, the Egyptians, who in 655 BC had withheld tribute and had declared independence, had challenged Assyrian domination. By 627 BC, the leader of Babylon, Nabopolasser, declared independence.
Assyrian dominance was severely restricted when Nineveh, the capital city fell to the Babylonians in 612 BC.
The Babylonians were rapidly becoming the dominant force in the region, but the Egyptians were soon to make a move in an attempt to re-assert the old order. It was in 605 BC that the Egyptian army, in support of Assyria, engaged the Babylonians in Carchemish (see the map). The Babylonian leader was Nebuchadnezzar who was to feature as a significant figure in the book of Daniel and in the history of Israel (see below). If a modern army want to capture a city they do so with bombs, but in these ancient times, the method was by siege. The Babylonians put Carchemish under siege and waited for the inevitable. It was during that time that the Egyptians headed north to assist the Assyrians against this new aggressor. The outcome of the battle established the Babylonians as the great power in the region at that time. They were to feature as God’s instruments in bringing judgement to Judah.
- The Kings
Josiah became king of Judah in about 640 BC – his wicked father had been on the throne for just 2 years: his assassination resulted in Josiah’s coronation at the age of 8 years old! In all, Josiah reigned for 31 years. As a teenager, he ‘began to seek the God of his father David.’ In his twelfth year as monarch ‘he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of high places, Asherah poles and idols. (2 Chronicles 34:3).’ His heart was most definitely in the right place! Josiah even ventured into the northern kingdom to bring about reform and remove idols and other items used in the worship of false gods. Since the northern tribes were under the control of Assyria at the time this perhaps indicates the growing weakness of the Assyrian empire.
I have always felt that the care a group of believers takes of the church in which they worship is something of a commentary of where their heart is. The temple in Jerusalem had been used to worship false gods and had clearly been allowed to fall into a state of disrepair and neglect. Josiah set about repairing and refurbishing the temple. This refurbishment project seems to have taken place about 620 BC. It was during that work that Hilkiah the priest found the book of the law. It seems remarkable that it had been ‘lost’ but it had! What a sad commentary on the spiritual state of the nation. The book was taken to Josiah and read out to him. Can you imagine the scene? – Josiah the godly king hearing, perhaps for the first time, about the promises that God had made to Abraham, the law that had been given to Moses and the promises made to the people as they entered the Promised Land (see Jeremiah part 1 in this series).
Josiah was astounded and deeply distressed. I think he most likely had been impressed and disturbed by the curses described in Deuteronomy 29. He sent the priest and others to enquire of a priestess, Huldah. It seems that even in those difficult days, God had appointed those who could speak for him. Huldah did not have words of hope. ‘16 “This is what the Lord says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read. 17 Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and aroused my anger by all the idols their hands have made, my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched. (2 Kings 22: 16-17)”’ As Josiah’s heart had been responsive to God and as he had humbled himself before God, there was some good news: ‘Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place.’ Huldah’s words were entirely consistent with the Deuteronomic covenant God had made with the people just before they entered the Promised Land.
The year was 609 and the Egyptian army (lead by Pharaoh Neco) were heading northwards to aid the Assyrians in their futile struggle against the Babylonians. It seems that Josiah saw the Egyptians as a threat (either immediate or at some future stage) to Judah and he assembled his army to engage with the Egyptians at Megiddo. Sadly, Josiah was killed in battle that ensued (see 2 Chronicles 35 and 2 Kings 23). The scene was now set for judgement on God’s disobedient people.
Josiah’s son, Jehoahaz reigned thereafter but not for long. Josiah had three sons each of whom would reign over Judah, not one of them followed in the godly footsteps of their father. Egypt now held sway over Judah and after only 3 months as king, and they imprisoned Jehoahaz, took him to Egypt and installed his brother Jehoiachim (AKA Eliakim) in his place – see family tree figure.
What about Jehoiachim? Again, he was not a godly king. His reign lasted 11 years. Remember that he had been installed by the Egyptians. In 605 BC (after Egypt had been defeated by the Babylonians at Carchemish), the Babylonians invaded Judah and for now at least, the Judeans were under Babylonian rule (see 2 Kings 24: 1). It was at this time that Daniel (of lion’s den fame) and others were taken captive to Babylon. Foolishly, Jehoiachim rebelled against the new Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. The year was 601 BC. The inevitable response came from Nebuchadnezzar, but in fact God was behind this and was about to use Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian army as his agents of judgment against Judah (all of this being entirely consistent with the Deuteronomic covenant). In 598 BC, the Babylonians arrived and Jehoiachim’s reign was over.
The Babylonians installed Jehoiachim’s son, Jehoiachin as king. This grandson of Josiah was once again a man who did not do what was right. His reign was short-lived: just 3 months. Nebuchadnezzar summoned him to Babylon and appointed his uncle, Zedekiah as the new king. 2 Chronicles 10 informs us that at this time, some of the articles of value were removed from the temple and taken to Babylon.
I think it’s not too unfair to say that Zedekiah was a fool. He ‘did evil in the eyes of the Lord (2 Chron. 36:12).’ Tragically, the people too followed the lead of the king and became more and more unfaithful to the Lord. They even defiled the Temple that Josiah had refurbished. In the year 594 or 595 BC, Zedekiah foolishly rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar. The Babylonians would not put up with this for long! In 589 BC, Nebuchadnezzar’s army arrived and a siege lasting 30 months ensued. There would be only one outcome.
Was God silent during this time? Here’s what is recorded in 2 Chronicles 36: 15 – ‘The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity of his people and his dwelling-place.’ The people mocked God’s messengers, despised God’s words and scoffed at the prophets. No doubt, as we shall see as we work through this book, Jeremiah was amongst those who spoke on behalf of God – others may have included Ezekiel, Daniel, Joel, Obadiah and Nahum. The story of the bible is all about man’s responsibility. God may foresee the outcome, but he patiently awaits the repentance of people who are afforded every opportunity to do the right thing. There is a view amongst many Christians today that since God is sovereign that he foreordains all that happens – this is clearly a faulty view as there is no way that God would ever foreordain sin. The picture that emerges in the bible is of a God who has delegated his authority to men and women. Responsibility for our actions rests with ourselves – but God persistently calls us to do the right thing. The Judeans had many, many opportunities to do what was right but they did not.
In the midst of this mess, we meet God’s servant Jeremiah, and what an unenviable task he was given. God chose Jeremiah for this task before he was born: ‘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 1: 4). This rather sounds as though Jeremiah had no choice in the matter! I wonder if that’s the case. Jeremiah could have refused the call of God. God knew Jeremiah, he set him apart and he appointed him, but Jeremiah had to accept the task and do it! Ephesians 2:10 says, ‘For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.’ God has laid out a path of good works for us to do, but I wonder how many of those good works remain unfinished or not even started in our lives?
What a commission Jeremiah had, but what should we make of his success? The best years of his life were given to this task and yet the outcome was total failure! Israel ignored him and persecuted him and the nation proceeded to their disastrous end in spite of Jeremiah’s efforts! However, Jeremiah was successful – he faithfully did what God wanted him to do.
Jeremiah was the son of Hilkiah – a priest of Anathoth, a place located just a few miles northeast of Jerusalem. We do not know how Jeremiah financed himself, perhaps there were some amongst the few who remained faithful to God who looked after him, perhaps he had some independent financial means – we do not know. It seems that he remained unmarried. The task was onerous and he was given to bouts of despair as well as exaltation. It is not for nothing that Jeremiah is known as the ‘weeping prophet.’
One can see Jeremiah’s career as a prophet in four phases: 1. the first period during the reign of Josiah (from 627 to 609 BC), 2. the second period from Josiah’s untimely death to the deportation of king Jehoiachim (from 609 to 597), 3. the third period from 597 to 587 – from the reign of Zedekiah to the fall of Jerusalem, 4. the final period in Jeremiah’s ministry was rom the fall of Jerusalem to his journey (against his will) to Egypt (from 587 BC). Jeremiah’s story ends in his departure for Egypt with the city of Jerusalem in ruins, the temple destroyed and the people deported to Babylon. In spite of this, Jeremiah is without doubt one of the greats in the bible, why? Because he did what God asked him to do. This is faith and this is success. When it’s all said and done what will be said of our opportunities to do what God asks in the short years we spend in this world?