The message of Jeremiah is especially relevant for the twenty-first century for several reasons. Jeremiah's ministry was impacted by empire building and empire collapse. International political power was shifting; Assyria's power was waning but Babylon was a fast-expanding empire. That theme of empire has also recently been highlighted in expositions of NT books. Anabaptists in the past have largely held themselves at a distance from civil government and have only more recently entertained discussion of empire. The challenge of engaging with empire from a God-perspective is intensified by global empires both emerging and decaying at the turn of the new millennium.
Jeremiah lived in a decadent culture and courageously moved against the grain. While he is often identified as a weeping prophet, he is more accurately characterized as the courageous prophet, for he challenged the devious ways of kings, religious leaders, and commoners. A frequent term in his tirades is "deception" (sheqer). To the extent that Western culture is lax in holding to moral standards, Jeremiah is a book to heed. Historically, Anabaptists viewed themselves as distinct from the “world” and frequently took a countercultural position. Jeremiah's bold actions in speaking truth to power, and in calling a people back to the ancient paths, are dimensions of godly living that find traction within the Anabaptist tradition.
The book of Jeremiah has more instances of the covenant formula—“And you shall be my people and I will be your God”—than any other biblical book. Jeremiah drew on Hosea and Deuteronomy in emphasizing the “community character” of God's people. Such an emphasis, dear to the Anabaptist wing of the Reformation, is increasingly noticed and adopted by Christians of many traditions.
As for the prophet himself, he is clearly a man of piety. More is revealed of his own journey with God than is revealed of any other prophet. With the postmodern interest in relationships, and the evangelical voice strong about the “personal relationship with Jesus,” a word such as the following resonates: “But let those who boast boast in this that they understand and know me, that I am Yahweh, I act with loving kindness and justice in the earth, for in these things I delight” (Jer 9:24). Knowing (“experiencing”) God is clearly an objective for the Christian (cf. Phil 3:10). Jeremiah illuminates what experiencing God looks like. Anabaptists, whose DNA includes a prominent element of piety, can lean on Jeremiah for specifics.
The God whom Jeremiah knows is a God who delights in justice. That point is made repeatedly in Jeremiah's interaction with the kings of Judah (Jer 21–22). He confronts officials in government, and offers King Josiah as a model who is described as “doing justice.” Jeremiah adds significantly, “Is this not to know me? says the Lord?” (Jer 22:15). A holistic approach to ministry, one that includes both declaration of God's message of judgment and salvation and attention to physical and earthly needs, finds its foundation in a book like Jeremiah.
At the time of the Reformation, Anabaptists were known for the pacifist positions they championed. For this stance of nonparticipation in war they were much maligned. While they rooted this conviction in the words of Jesus to love one's enemies, the book of Jeremiah also offers support for a pacifist stance. Jeremiah exhorts the community in exile to seek the peace of the foreign city in which they will live: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf” (29:7). That city represented Israel's enemy who had killed their compatriots and had taken others captive. The prophet's counsel was not to seek revenge or reprisal but to intercede to God in their behalf. Several are the situations in which Jeremiah advises the king to submit to the approaching Babylon invaders, thus averting confrontation and war (e.g., 21:8-11; 27:12-15; 38:17-18). Hardly can the prophets be characterized as champions of force, or advocates for war. The context of the call to prepare for war in Joel (3:9), for example, is one of irony: nations are called to beat their plowshares into swords, then come down to the valley of Jehoshaphat where God will judge them. Israel will battle with none other than God. Hence it will be a losing battle.
Anabaptists, like other Christians, understand harassment and persecution for their belief. During the Protestant Reformation the Anabaptists were opposed for their belief even by the reformers Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Luther. When Anabaptist leaders such as Felix Manz introduced believers baptism, and rejected infant baptism, they were condemned to death. Manz was drowned in the Limmat River. Others were burned at the stake, or expelled from their communities. As opposition to the Christian message becomes more vicious even in the West, Jeremiah is a book to which the persecuted would do well to turn for help. (See further the final section, “Jeremiah's Enduring Message.”)
Date, Setting, and Author
Jeremiah, born ca. 640 BCE, was called to ministry in 627 BCE He proclaimed the Lord's word in southern Palestine until the fall of Jerusalem (587) and later to the refugees in Egypt. The prophet lived in tumultuous times politically. Israel, the ten northern tribes, had been carried captive by the Assyrians ca. 721 for the evils enumerated by Amos, Hosea, and Micah, summarized in 2 Kings 17:1-41. Politically, then, Jeremiah who lived in the environs of Jerusalem was very aware, as were Judah's leaders and people, of the Assyrian Empire's presence in Samaria just miles from his home.
In his own country of Judah, Jeremiah witnessed a rapid turnover of royal power. Josiah, who ruled from 640–609 BCE, was a righteous king who instituted the national reform of 622 when idols were abolished and a renewal of devotion to God was demonstrated in observing the annual Passover (2 Kings 21:23). His successor was Jehoahaz who ruled only for three months. He was followed by the longer but evil reign of Jehoiakim (609–598). Jeremiah denounced him for his self-serving ways (Jer 22:13-17). Jehoiachin, Jehoiakim's son, ruled only three months (598–597) before being taken captive to Babylon.
The Babylonians had been closing in on Judah. Having taken Nineveh, Assyria's capital, in 612 BCE, the Babylonians marched eastward, engaged the Egyptians who had come to stop them, defeated them at Carchemish on the northern Euphrates river in 605, and proceeded south along the Mediterranean coast. In 604 under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar they turned west to march into the hill country toward Jerusalem. Leading citizens along with others such as Daniel and his friends were seized and taken to Babylon. In 597 the Babylonians returned and took unrighteous king Jehoiachin to far-off Babylon, a distance of seven hundred miles (2 Chron. 36:9-10).
Zedekiah replaced Jehoiachin as king in 597 BCE, and ruled, rather lamely, till 587 when the Babylonians returned once more, decisively conquering Judah. King Zedekiah engaged Jeremiah in several encounters seeking advice. For many years the prophet had counseled surrender to the Babylonians. King Zedekiah eventually threw Jeremiah into a pit to die, though the prophet was later rescued. The Babylonians marched to Egypt's borders, returned and burned the city Jerusalem and its temple (587). To seal their victory, they took King Zedekiah north to their camp at Ribla and slaughtered his sons in his presence before blinding him and taking him to Babylon (2 Kings 25:6-7). When Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon put Gedaliah, a Jew, in office as administrator, subterfuge and ill will combined to bring about Gedaliah's assassination. With the collapse of Judah, citizens came to the prophet for counsel. Jeremiah advised the remnant in Judah not to flee to Egypt (Jer 42:7-22). When that counsel was ignored, Jeremiah nevertheless joined the fugitives and went with them to Egypt where he died.
Jeremiah was called before his birth to be a prophet (Jer 1:5). He was born into a family of priests who lived in Anathoth, a village near Jerusalem. Given the negative messages that Jeremiah spoke, his family turned on him and plotted to kill him (11:18-23). God forbade Jeremiah to marry (16:2). The temple priests locked him up (20:1-2). Kings pursued him to take his life, yet his communication, though clandestine, continued thanks to Baruch his assistant (36:4-8). When the scroll Jeremiah dictated to Baruch was read to Jehoiakim, the king burned it (Jer 36:20-26). Although King Zedekiah repeatedly requested a word from God through Jeremiah, the king treated him poorly (38:11-13). Kings, officials, the general populace, even God, so it seemed, opposed Jeremiah. Through his laments—sometimes called “confessions” (e.g., Jer 11:18-23; 12:1-6; 15:10-12, 15-21; 17:14-18; 18:18-23 and 20:7-13)—more is revealed of his interior life than is revealed of any other prophet.
Form and Rhetoric
By word count the book of Jeremiah is one of the longest in the Bible. It is also the most scrambled in its organization, for it is not chronologically or thematically arranged. The composition of the book is debated. Does the entire book derive from the prophet? Parts are in first person (e.g., chaps. 2–25), but most are not. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT dating from the third century BCE in Alexandria, is one-seventh shorter. The oracles against the nations, which in the Hebrew Old Testament are found at the end of the book, are found in the Septuagint after Jer 25:13. Since one version of the scroll delivered to King Jehoiakim was burned by him, and since Jeremiah wrote a second scroll, there are questions about whether the first or even parts of the second scroll can be identified. The final chapter (chap. 52) is a duplicate for the most part of 2 Kings 25.
As is sometimes suggested for other prophets, is it possible that Jeremiah's disciples—even Baruch as one of them—had a major hand in the compilation of the book? These technical-type questions are discussed in some of the more detailed scholarly commentaries (e.g., William Holladay, Jeremiah vol. 2, pp. 1-95) or in dictionaries of the Bible (e.g., Anchor Bible Dictionary).
An outline of the book reveals themes and issues common to prophets: judgment on Judah and Israel; judgment on nations; and hope for Israel. While these elements are present, the sequence of the topics is different. Broadly, the divisions of the book are:
- Oracles of Judgment Against Judah and Israel, Jer 1–29
- The Book of Comfort, Jer 30–33
- Narratives About the Prophet, Jer 34–45
- Oracles of Judgment Against the Nations, Jer 46–52.
While such an outline is helpful, the “flow” of the book becomes apparent through attending to a chiastic arrangement where Part A' with its history is a counterpart of Part A, also a history. Part B on sermons is matched by the sermon-like oracles about the nations in Part B'. The Book of Comfort in Part E becomes the pivotal section in the book.
A. History: God's Personal Message to Jeremiah (1:1–19)
B. Sermons Warning of Disaster (2–10)
- 1. A Marriage About to Break Up (2:1–3:5)
- 2. A Story of Two Sisters (3:6–4:4)
- 3. Trouble from the North (4:5–6:30)
- 4. Examining Public Worship (7:1–8:3)
- 5. Treachery, Trouble, and Tears (8:4–10:25)
C. Stories: Wrestling with People and with God (11–20)
- 1. Coping with Conspiracies (11:1–12:17)
- 2. Pride Ruins Everything (13:1–27)
- 3. Dealing with Drought (14:1–15:21)
- 4. Much Bad News, Some Good (16:1–17:27)
- 5. A Pot Marred, a Pot Smashed (18:1–19:15)
- 6. Terror on Every Side (20:1–18)
D. Leadership: Challenging Kings and Prophets (21–29)
- 1. Addressing Rulers and Governments (21:1–23:8)
- 2. Addressing Prophets and Their Audiences (23:9–40)
- 3. Divine Anger (24:1–25:38)
- 4. Jeremiah Versus the People (26:1–24)
- 5. Submit to Babylon's Yoke! (27:1–28:17)
- 6. A Pastoral Letter (29:1–32)
E. Central Focus: The Book of Comfort (30–33)
- 1. Coming Back to the Land (30:1–24)
- 2. Coming Back to God (31:1–40)
- 3. A Property Purchase (32:1–44)
- 4. Things Great and Unsearchable (33:1–26)
D'. Leadership: Case Studies in Failure (34–39)
- 1. Going Back on One's Word (34:1–21)
- 2. The Rechabites, a model of Obedience (35:1–19)
- 3. The Burning of a Scroll (36:1–32)
- 4. Troubling a Prophet (37:1–38:28)
- 5. The Fall of Jerusalem (39:1–18)
C'. Stories: After the Catastrophe (40–45)
- 1. Trouble from Within (40:1–41:18)
- 2. Trouble in Egypt (42:1–43:13)
- 3. Failure to Learn from History (44:1–45:5)
B'. Sermon-Oracles about the Nations (46–51)
- 1. Egypt (46:1–28)
- 2. Philistia (47:1–7)
- 3. Moab (48:1–47)
- 4. Ammon (49:1–6)
- 5. Edom (49:7–22)
- 6. Damascus (49:23–27)
- 7. Kedar and Hazor (49:28–33)
- 8. Elam (49:34–39)
- 9. Babylon (50:1–51:64)
A'. History: The Fall of Jerusalem (52:1–34)
Like other prophetic books, there are numerous oracles (some 150) that begin with the messenger formula, “Thus says the Lord.” Many include or conclude with the declarative formula “says the Lord.” Jeremiah's book, like other prophetic books, contains visions (e.g., 1:11-13), symbolic actions (e.g., Jer 13:1-11; 51:59-64), and even sermons, the most notable of which is the Temple Sermon (7:1-13). Very prominent are the judgment oracles that consist essentially of an accusation and an announcement (e.g., 5:10-17). Salvation oracles, whether of the “assurance” genre, (e.g., Jer 30:11-12) or “announcement” genre (e.g., 30:17b-22), are fewer in number. A remarkable “call to repentance,” reminiscent of Hosea 14:1-3, appears in 3:23–4:2. As in Isaiah and Ezekiel, major coverage is given to the oracles against the nations (chaps. 46–51).
In contrast to most prophetic books, Jeremiah contains considerable narrative. The book begins with the story of Jeremiah's call (Jer 1:4-19). The book narrates Jeremiah's exchange with Hananiah, another prophet (chap. 28), and also his interaction with the Rechabites (chap. 35). One can follow the sequences of his afflictions: custody (37:11-16), thrown into a dungeon (38:1-6); and court confinement (38:13, 28). Names are numerous in the story of King Jehoiakim burning sections of the scroll (chap. 36). Major coverage is given to Zedekiah making and unmaking a covenant with slaves in Jerusalem (34:8-22).
A sampling of rhetorical features includes repetitions that help to center the message, e.g., wrath and anger (and synonyms), the most in any of the biblical books, and the title "LORD of hosts." Many are the questions Jeremiah poses to God (e.g., 15:18), concerning leaders (22:28), and to the populace (2:11, 28; 8:22; 23:18). We find occasional comparisons (e.g., 3:6-10), frequent metaphors (2:13; 23-24); and some word plays (1:11-12).
Summary and Comment
Commentaries such as the one in the Believers Church Bible Commentary series can be checked for explanations of the text. This section is devoted to a summary of the book. Rather than follow the chapter sequence, which, as stated, is not in any chronological order, we adopt a topical approach according to the outline given above. The book is viewed here as having an envelope type of outline. For example, the first chapter in some aspects matches the last chapter. The following discussion takes these two matching parts and treats them together. The next section from the beginning matches the section next to the last section of the book. These two are treated under one topic. Not only does this method (called chiasmus) represent a fresh way of surveying the book, but it allows for the gathering up of topics and highlights the centerpiece, The Book of Comfort (chaps. 30-33).
The Narrative of God's Call to an Individual, Part A (chap. 1)/The Narrative of the Fate of a Nation, Part A' (chap. 52)
The book of Jeremiah is bracketed by Parts A and A'. Part A contains God's personal message to the prophet (1:1-19); Part A' is an appendix that relays the story of Jerusalem's fall and the consequent exile of Judah to Babylon (52:1-34). Such an arrangement already signals that for the most part the book will be about the life story of a prophet intertwined with the fate of a nation, though the follow through is not complete; the narrative about Jeremiah's personal life concludes in chps. 42-43. God's call to the prophet is narrated in the first chapter; the last chapter narrates the end of a nation's five hundred year history.
The Story of a Prophet's Call, 1:4-19
God's call to Jeremiah is narrated biographically in dialogue form. Already before Jeremiah was born, God chose him for a dual assignment: he was to be a prophet both to his people and to the nations; he was to “tear down” and he was to “plant and to build.” Jeremiah demurred. God responded by addressing both the given reason, youth and inexperience, and the unstated but deeper reason, fear.
Two visions follow: one, of a blossoming almond tree, conveys the message via word play that God is there for Jeremiah; the second, of a tilting pot, ominously signifies the coming of an enemy, unnamed, as God's punishing agent. That enemy from the north is eventually identified as Babylon (20:4).
Anabaptists are known for their stress on community and discernment. Hence, holding the OT and NT in continuity, on the subject of God's call an Anabaptist emphasis acknowledges God's direct call on individuals (cf. Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Paul). Yet to the private call there needs to be added the discernment of the community as revealed by the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 9 and 13).
The Story of a Nation's Demise, 52:1-34
By the end of the book (chap. 52), the reader knows how it all played out. Nebuchadnezzar, in the nineteenth year of his monarchy, took Jerusalem, burned the temple, and deported the citizens. This report of the invasion in 587 BCE (some date it 586) is a virtual duplicate of 2 Kings 25. The book ends with King Evil-merodach of Babylon extending favorable treatment to the exiled Jehoiachin, king of Judah. The ominous announcement of chapter 1 is now history.
The telling and the writing of story is common to God's people (cf. Acts 1–28), so that while Anabaptists have not an edge on this genre, it can still be said that personal and denominational stories and histories figure large among them. A classic is The Martyr's Mirror, stories of how God has been experienced in personal and in group history.
Sermons to Judah and Israel, Part B (2–10)/Oracles to Nations, Part B' (46–51)
Jeremiah enters into his task of confronting God's people about their sin with great energy and vivid metaphor (2:1–10:25). It is part of his negative task to tear down bad theologies and to uproot evil behavior. The counterpart section, also mostly in the form of poetry, is a set of oracles about the nations (46:1–51:64). Like the sermons to Judah, these oracles identify wicked behavior, but now of nations. The announcements of judgment and destruction in the oracles are more extensive and more graphic than in the sermons.
Strong Images for the sins of God's people, 2:1–10:25
The sermon section addressed to the people of God begins with the metaphor of a marriage (2:2-3); this was also employed by Hosea to depict the covenant between God and his people as a covenant between husband and wife. In shocking fashion, Jeremiah launches at once into a lawsuit against “Jacob and all the families of the house of Israel” (2:4). Among the accusations are several against leaders: the priests, whose ministry was to pass on the tradition, did not know God; rulers broke God's law; and the prophets prophesied by Baal (2:8). God's people have forsaken their God, the fountain of living water, and reached for substitutes (2:15). It is nothing short of rebellion (2:29). Unthinkable as a bride forgetting her ornaments, God's people have forgotten their God (2:32). And that brings up the subject of divorce (3:1). The charges of infidelity are detailed, but so also is a way of reconciliation. The litany of repentance, one of the most forceful in Scripture, is presented in 3:22–4:2.
The remainder of the section (4:5–10:25) alternates in a general way between further accusations of waywardness and graphic descriptions of the coming disaster. This tragedy is a war brought on by God himself with Babylon as his instrument. A sampling of the accusations: a survey (“Gallup Poll,” Jer 5) confirms that there is not one person among either rich or poor who “acts justly and seeks truth” (Jer 5:1). Adultery is depicted as “well-fed lusty stallions, each neighing for his neighbor's wife” (5:8). The people are described as having a “stubborn and rebellious heart” (5:23). “Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of treachery” (5:27). Jeremiah charges Israel with greed (6:13). In the famous Temple Sermon, Jeremiah makes two points: Amend your ways, and stop trusting in deceptive slogans (7:1-15). People engage in surrogate religion by building high places, even sacrificing their children to idols (7:30). The people are adulterers; they lie and deceive and do not really know Yahweh (9:2-3). Instead they boast of their strength, wealth, and knowledge when their boast and preoccupation should be Yahweh (Jer 9:23-24). In chapter 10 Jeremiah takes full aim at idolatry, contrasting idolatrous fabrications with the God of creation and eternity.
Pointed Accusations Against an Array of Nations, 46–51
In this section, the oracles against the nations (46—51), which correspond to “Sermons Warning of disaster” (2–10), there are weighty, though fewer accusations. Prideful behavior, a major charge, is leveled against Moab (e.g., 48:29, 42) and Babylon (50:29-32). Some nations are cited for their mistreatment of God's people (50:17-18); others for their idolatry (50:2), still others for a spirit of independence and a disregard for the Almighty (46:8, 25; 48:42), whose title, readers are reminded, is “LORD of Hosts” (46:10; 49:7).
Previews of Coming Disaster
Sandwiched in between accusations are threats of dire consequences for both Judah and Israel. Here is a sampling:
- “I am bringing you to judgment” (2:35b)
- “I am bringing evil from the north, a great destruction” (4:6)
- “Proclaim against Jerusalem, 'Besiegers come from a distant land'” (4:16)
- A “nuclear winter” with the earth devastated (4:23-26)
- Run for safety because “evil looms out of the north, and a great destruction” (6:1)
- “This is the city [Jerusalem] that must be punished” (6:6)
- A sound of wailing is heard from Zion: “How we are ruined!” (9:19).
Threats are both more numerous and more weighty (if that is possible) in the oracles against the nations. Here too is featured the nature of coming disasters. Nebuchadnezzar will come against Egypt (46:13). The Philistines will be consigned to the “sword of the LORD” in the form of an invading army of stomping horses and chariots (47:3, 6). “Moab shall be destroyed as a people” (48:42). “A battle alarm will be sounded against the Ammonites; it shall become a desolated mound” (49:2-3). “Edom shall become an object of horror” (49:17). Similar devastations will come on Damascus (49:23-27), Kedar, the kingdoms of Hazor (49:28-33), and Elam (49:34-39). A major verbal missile (105 verses) is launched against Babylon (50:1–51:59). Nothing will stand in the way: “I will punish Bel in Babylon” (51:44).
Along with other Christians, Anabaptists read these grim announcements that involve ruthless warfare. They are committed to reading Scripture through the lens of Jesus, who called on his followers to love their enemies; Anabaptists do not conclude that participation in war is to be sanctioned as a good thing just because war is one of God's judgment options. Anabaptists have addressed this contentious issue of Christians participating in war by declaring that the words of Jesus trump the politics of nations.
Calls for Change and a Promise of Hope
These chapters cannot be read as altogether dark. Many are the repeated calls to repent. “Return, O faithless children, I will heal your faithlessness” (3:22; cf. 4:1). There is hope if his people will do a spiritual turnaround. Hope is also held out for a select number of nations. The standard formula of hope, “Yet I will restore the fortunes” (i.e., bring about the restoration), is promised to Moab (48:47), Ammon (49:6), and Elam (49:39) but decidedly not to Babylon whose fate is to sink and “to rise no more” (51:63).
Stories about Wrestling with People and with God, Part C (11–20)/After the Catastrophe Part C' (40–45)
Show and Tell
Within these chapters (11–20) are found messages associated with objects or symbolic actions. Jeremiah is to buy a new loincloth, travel a distance (some interpret the destination to be the Euphrates, 700 miles away), and bury it. Months later in a return visit the loin cloth is discovered, badly spoiled. Part of the meaning is that Israel was intended to be “a name, a praise, and a glory” for the Lord, just as a new belt enhanced the appearance of its wearer (13:11). Also portending an evil future, Jeremiah is forbidden to enter the house of feasting, a prohibition raising questions that are answered by the Lord: “I will hurl you out of this land” for sins worse than that of their evil ancestors (16:13). Another lesson, about divine sovereignty, is given Jeremiah when he visits a potter's house (18:1-11). On another occasion he invites elders to go with him to the entry of the Potsherd Gate and smash a pot to demonstrate how God will break his people (19:10). The people's response to such object lessons is, “It's no use! We will follow our own plans” (18:12).
I Can't Take It Any Longer
Discouraged because his efforts appear useless, Jeremiah expresses himself in verbal complaints to God. “Why does the way of the guilty prosper?” (12:1). “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? (15:18). He accosts God: “You are to me like a deceitful brook” (15:18). He charges, “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed” (20:7).
During the Protestant Reformation, the heavily persecuted Anabaptists blurted out their pain to God. In his Foundation of Christian Doctrine (1539) and A Pathetic Supplication to All Magistrates (1552), Menno Simons invited magistrates to examine the life and teachings of Mennonites to see that they were simply trying to live according to Christ's teaching. Even as the prophet claimed God's assurances, such as “I am with you to save you and deliver you” (15:20), so the martyrs held steady, leaning on God's promises. At all times Christians have wrestled with a God whose promise to answer prayer sometimes seems elusive and problematic.
Naming and Telling
In chapters 40–45 the stories of a people's resistance continue. Now the opponents have names. The scene has changed from pre-invasion (Jer 11–20) to post-conquest (40–45). Gedaliah, the Jew whom Nebuchadnezzar had set as governor over the land, is warned but fails to listen and meets his death. The remnant in the land seek Jeremiah's advice about fleeing to Egypt. Against that counsel, they go to Egypt anyway. To Jeremiah's admonition not to adopt Egyptian ways and make offerings to the local Egyptian gods, they reply, “We are not going to listen to you” (43:16). Baruch, a personal scribe, is rebuked as well but later is encouraged by God (45:5). Anabaptists continue to stress obedience, discipleship, and humility. In his True Christian Faith (1541), Menno urged believers to live a life characterized by love and service to others, and in all things to follow the teachings and example of Christ. None of these come easily. Christians are in a constant struggle to embrace God's will over against their own, often selfish and independent, ways.
Challenging Kings and Prophets, Part D (21–29)/Case Studies of the Failure of Leadership, Part D' (34–39)
At God's directive, Jeremiah takes kings and prophets to task by reminding them of their fundamental responsibility. Chapters 21–22 are especially striking as there is a twice-repeated call for kings to practice justice (21:11; 22:3). An immediate example of King Jehoiakim's unjust ways follows. Workers constructing the king's palace have not been paid. Jeremiah invokes the memory of the king's father Josiah who attended to the poor. Speaking for God, the prophet asks, “Is this not what it means to know me?” (Jer 2:13). Other kings are also named and evaluated.
Although Jeremiah is monarch-specific in a few instances in this section of the book, it is in the corresponding section that leadership failures are further exposed (Jer 34–39). In high-handed fashion, King Jehoiakim burns the scroll that contains God's message through Jeremiah (chapter 36). Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, faces a dire situation with King Nebuchadnezzar's army advancing from the Shephelah (low country near the Mediterranean coast) toward Jerusalem in the hill country. King Zedekiah, in ostensible repentance for his lapses in observing the Year of Jubilee, proclaims release to all slaves (34:6-22). But when the threat passes with Nebuchadnezzar continuing on to Egypt, Zedekiah reneges. When the people are re-enslaved, Jeremiah confronts the vacillating king on the subject of integrity. In his final encounter with Zedekiah, Jeremiah renews the radical message found all through the book, “Surrender to Babylon” (38:17).
Jeremiah's radical message to engage in the non-intuitive action of surrendering to Babylon is one with which Anabaptists historically identify. In the sixteenth century the major reformers Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli objected to activities they considered counter to the Bible. The Anabaptists took matters a step further when they insisted that only beliefs and practices biblically endorsed and prescribed were to be followed. Specifically, the baptism of adult believers was sanctioned; child baptism was not. Jesus taught love for enemies. Anabaptists interpreted this instruction to mean that participation in warfare was not legitimate for Christian. Both these views, quite like Jeremiah's counsel, were radical.
Prophets were taken to task as well, and accused of announcing peace when there was no peace. Jeremiah challenged Hananiah's optimistic announcement of King Jehoiachin's swift return from exile (Jer 28). A pastoral letter to the exiles in Babylon alerted the folk there to the false messages given by the prophets Ahab and Zedekiah (29: 15-23). A broadside against the prophets is found in Jeremiah 23.
In the narrative that spells out some details immediately prior to the siege of Jerusalem (chaps. 34–40), Jeremiah has a brief word about prophets. King Zedekiah inquires of Jeremiah, who answers, “Where are your prophets who prophesied to you, saying, 'The king of Babylon will not come against you and against this land'?” (37:19). Although not prophets, the officials set themselves against Jeremiah urging that the king put Jeremiah to death because his advocacy of surrender was demoralizing the people (38:4).
Anabaptists know well the misguided zeal of leaders who twist the Gospel to suit their particular views. At Muenster, Germany, some revolutionaries tried to establish a “New Jerusalem” by force in 1535, and coerced baptism. As a result, Anabaptists were quickly accused of having given birth to this fiasco. Menno Simons emphatically rejected this notion when he wrote The Blasphemy of Jan of Leiden (1535). In his Letter to Gellius Faber (1554), he lamented that “pious herds” had been deceived.
The Book of Comfort, Part E (30–33)
When one reads with attention to chiasmus (envelope structure), the pivotal point in the book of Jeremiah becomes the series of consoling oracles known as “The book of Comfort.” In these four chapter there is an alternating focus on (1) returning to the Lord (Jer 30:3a), and (2) returning to the land (Jer 30:3b). A spiritual restoration will not come without acknowledging the chastisement that the Lord has inflicted on account of his people's sins (30:11c-15). The upshot of the spiritual transformation is that Israel will once again bask in the reality of the covenant formula ,“I will be your God, and you shall be my people” (30:22; 31:1, 33). Exciting descriptions are offered of how once again there will be song and dance as worshipers ascend Mt. Zion (31:2-6, 12-14). As Israel acknowledges Yahweh's disciplinary action, God will remember and have mercy (31:18-20). The people's sin and guilt will be forgiven (33:8). Best of all, God will establish a new covenant with his people (Jer 31:31-34; 32:40; 33:25-26). The covenants with David and Levi are reconfirmed (33:17-22). God will answer their prayer and do great things for them (33:2-3).
Vitally important in these descriptions is the prospect of the captives returning to their homeland (30:10; 31:10-11). A convincing symbolic action is that of Jeremiah purchasing land (over his own better judgment?) at a time when the Babylonians are besieging the city (chap. 32). The promise is that cities will be rebuilt with substantial populations and good rulers (30:18-21). Vineyards will be planted, the land will produce bountifully (31:5, 12-14), people in urban and rural areas will get along (31:24) and both will prosper (33:9-13). The former good economy will return (32:40-44).
Christians hold that the promised new covenant is fulfilled in Jesus (Heb 8:6-13). Quite rightly they stress the new quality of life that he brings. The Anabaptist wing of Christendom has rooted itself in the community aspect of the covenant. The emphasis on the land, tilling and harvesting, resonated in past centuries particularly with the Anabaptist Mennonites who, when living under persecution in Western Europe (i.e., Prussia), were offered land in Russia by Catherine the Great and began emigrating there in the 1780s. Expert in agricultural matters, whether living in Russia, or on the North American plains or in Paraguay or Brazil, the Bible and the plow were their appropriate emblems.
Conclusion: Jeremiah's Enduring Message
The People of God and the State
The message of the book touches on matters of state. God's people as well as the world's nations are on God's radar. The disaster, brought on in each instance by sinful behavior, is God's answer to the evil of that time. This God of Israel and clearly also of the world is not forever patient with the destructiveness that evil precipitates. God loves justice (Isa 61:8) and will not forever tolerate injustice in a society—even among his people. So the contours of the tragedy are vividly portrayed. Even that portrayal is a mark of God's grace, for in describing the catastrophes that await peoples, God is inviting them to change. The principle enunciated at the time of Jeremiah's visit to the potter's shed holds: “At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it” (18:7). God will be merciful to the repentant.
God as a God of Wrath and Mercy
Christians have struggled with this bifurcation of God's wrath and mercy, God's judgment and grace, that underlie the message. In the opinion of some, Anabaptists have emphasized (overemphasized?) the stern side of God, thereby underplaying the dominant note of God's grace. Other denominations have so trumpeted the gospel of grace that the harder sayings about God's wrath and punishment have been ignored. It would be odd if those who preach love, even of enemies, would be characterized as worshiping an angry God, and those who find reasons for killing would be known to espouse a God of love. The tension cannot be resolved; the challenge is to discern a balance.
Individual and Corporate Spirituality
Similarly, a balance needs to be struck between individual spirituality and the larger (even national) spirituality. While Jeremiah is replete with helps about personal piety and devotion, including an account of the prophet's arguments with God, the book forever shines the light on the wider horizon of political and ethnic communities. Underlying this emphasis on the individual and society is a view of God that is at once all about personal relationships but is also about God's sovereignty over world and the cosmos. The Anabaptists, while declaring their belief in God's work in the larger world of politics or God's concern about the environment, have traditionally focused on individual piety and on the evangelism of persons. Critics might rightly remark that the Anabaptist vision of the mission of God is not sufficiently inclusive in its scope..
Jeremiah and Jesus: Their Identities and Their Message
The longest quotations in the NT from the OT come from Jeremiah. The author of Hebrews contrasts the old and new covenants and, in this context, quotes at length from this prophet (Jer 31:31-34; Heb 8:8-12). Jesus also cites Jeremiah in connection with temple cleansing. Matthew's birth narrative of Jesus quotes Jeremiah, noting the description of Rachel, a symbol for Israel. Her weeping for the people killed and/or exiled was further realized as mothers wept for their children killed by Herod (Jer 31:15; Matt 2:18). Jeremiah's poetic description of Rachel refers to an historic event. Matthew's citation of that text is “fulfillment,” not in the sense of prediction, but in the sense of correspondence. Herod's slaughter of the infants at Jesus' birth, and the resulting laments of mothers, is comparable and parallel to what happened in Jeremiah's time.
The linkage between Jesus as a person and Jeremiah as a prophet can be summarized in this chart.
|Message||Change your ways||Repent|
|Message||Book of Comfort||Gospel|
|Response: Public||Lynched (almost)||Crucified|
|Response: Religious Leaders||Critical||Critical|
Anabaptists, with their emphasis on Jesus' life and teachings (e.g., Jesus' Sermon on the Mount), have sometimes failed to appreciate the extent to which his ministry is rooted in the Old Testament. Since all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and profitable (2 Tim 3:16), we should not be surprised to discover the above parallels between Jesus and the prophet from Anathoth. Jesus' contemporaries likened him to Jeremiah (Matt 16:14), good reason to give this OT book careful attention.
Recommended Essays in the Commentary
- Allen, Leslie C. Jeremiah. A Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2008.
- Brueggemann, Walter. A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.
- Holladay, William. Jeremiah. 2 vols. Hermeneia. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1986, 1989.
- Longman, Tremper, III. Jeremiah, Lamentations. New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008.
- Martens, Elmer A. Jeremiah. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1986.
- ______. “Jeremiah and Lamentations.” Pages 295-593 in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, vol. 8 of Cornerstone Biblical Commentary. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2005.
- ______. “Jeremiah's 'Lord of Hosts' and a Theology of Mission.” Pages 83-97 in Reflection and Projection: Mission at the Threshold of 2001. Edited by Hans Kasdorf and Klaus Mueller. Bad Liebenzell: Liebenzeller Mission, 1988.
- Stuhlman, Louis. Jeremiah. Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2005.
Invitation to Comment
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|—Elmer A. Martens|