With Zach Hawkins. Click here to download the PDF.

The Place of Jeremiah in Salvation History

Jeremiah was called by God (627 BCE) to speak to the people of Jerusalem during a revival under King Josiah (628 BCE[1]). The revival died along with King Josiah in a battle against the Egyptians. After his death, Josiah’s sons ruled as the collapse of the kingdom occurred. Because of Judah’s constant rebellion against being a vassal for Babylon, many Israelites were deported, including contemporary prophet Ezekiel, which  many thought was the sum total of Jeremiah’s prophecies of doom. Unfortunately, they were incorrect. In 589, Jeremiah continued as a prophet through Jerusalem’s fall to the Babylonians.  It’s important to note that while the Babylonians believed that deportation was a well-executed way of quelling further rebellion, God was using that deportation to preserve a remnant for Himself. Also important is the notion of remnant in Jeremiah. Most may interpret this as God protecting the faithful, not allowing them to be subject to suffering and pain. This is not true. Just because God is preserving a remnant does not mean that they will not experience a great deal of suffering and pain as they literally go to live in a foreign land under foreign rule.

The message of hope here is not that as faithful followers, “remnants,” or “good Christians” won’t experience suffering. Rather, the message of hope here is that God’s promises can never be broken. The hope is that no matter what happens to either the remnant or the remaining people in Judah, God’s promise to Abraham, Moses, and David will be delivered upon. As for Jeremiah, during his career his task was to hammer home the message that Jerusalem’s eminent fall was not due to any lack on God’s part but was due entirely to their unfaithfulness to God, specifically turning from him by listening to false prophets rather than true ones.[2] Yet, even in the midst of prophesying judgment there was also hope. Jeremiah foretold a return from exile and an everlasting covenant in which God’s people would at last embrace the covenant in their hearts, finally fulfilling their calling to bring light to the world. To put it simply: “Jeremiah tells the story that promises renewed salvation after judgment and names this as the new covenant…which leads to fulfillment in God’s act of salvation through Christ.”[3]

The Background to Jeremiah

The book of Jeremiah is set during the politically tumultuous times following the fall of the Assyrians and the rise of the Babylonians. Judah passed quickly through rapid cycles of independence, and subjection, first in Egypt and now in Babylon. The nation’s independence was at an end.[4] Jeremiah personally witnessed “the Babylonian invasion which culminated in the capture of Jerusalem, the destruction of Solomon’s temple and the forced exile of many Judeans into Babylon.”[5]

“Because Jeremiah is unlike any other Old Testament prophet, and because his writings are so inextricably bound up with his life and thought[6], the student of this prophecy must consider in depth the inner life and characteristics of this man of God.”[7] Jeremiah was born into a family of priestly lineage in Anathoth, about 2 or 3 miles from Jerusalem. He was called to be a prophet and served for over 40 years[8]. At the time of his call he was a youth[9] and still dependent on his parents. He became a priest and lived in an area allotted to the tribe of Benjamin, so he was possibly a descendant of Abiathar, high priest during David’s reign. Although he had a priestly lineage, his family would eventually oppose him[10] for reasons not identified in the text. Perhaps it was because he was not afraid to criticize what he saw happening in Jerusalem[11]. Many authors have called Jeremiah the “weeping prophet.”[12] In some sense Jeremiah had to identify with God in order to fully comprehend his ministry. In his own suffering Jeremiah reflected the suffering of God. However, the emphasis on his weeping may be misleading if that is the only picture given – considering his determination, dedication, ad longsuffering, Jeremiah would also be noted as a visionary follower of God. Consider what he endured:

“Jeremiah often withstood the political and religious establishment of the day…he would suffer for it. He was persecuted for his message; whipped and put in stocks by a temple overseer[13]; accused of treason, sedition, and desertion[14]; plotted against[15]; imprisoned in a cistern[16]; and held under arrest in the courtyard of the guard.[17]…The prophet gives the expression of feeling abandoned by God or prays that God will take vengeance on his enemies, or he questions the goodness and constancy of God in the face of his suffering.”[18]

Jeremiah is single and barren and cannot get married. This is not because of his convictions or preferences, but because his life is a Sign-Act that functions as a parallel to the way of Israel. Judah, like Jeremiah, will face the barrenness of the land.[19] The emotional burden of this dual role on Jeremiah is extreme and leads to a lament in which he curses his birth.[20] The death he thus seeks corresponds to the “death” that Judah itself must endure; and the continuation of prophet and message into the second half of the book is a token of life beyond that death for the people.[21]

As one interprets this book, realize that the life of the prophet only becomes an aspect of the theology of the book. The word of the Lord is the primary focus, not a profile of the prophet. The aim is to hear the message of the book and how the life of the prophet fuels that message. It would be unwise to make parallels between Jeremiah and modern day Christians as the sole purpose of the book of Jeremiah. These prophets are not to be regarded as models for living, as if that is the purpose of chronicling their lives. No, instead, their lives and ministries should be viewed with an eye toward the plans of a Holy God, working amongst his chosen people, to enact His unshakable will. The claim of Jeremiah is not, “Be like Jeremiah!” Rather it’s, “Listen to the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah!”

The Composition of Jeremiah

Determining the authorship of the book of Jeremiah is complicated. However, these complications do not make it impossible for the actual content of the book to be Jeremiah’s words.[22] “It seems quite likely that in the generations after the prophets’ death his materials were collected and edited into their final form.”[23] The book reports that Baruch wrote down some of Jeremiah’s messages[24]. Therefore, it is quite possible that he wrote down the various types of “words of Jeremiah”[25] at Jeremiah’s dictation. One thing is certain; the book of Jeremiah contains more information on the prophet than any other Old Testament prophetic book.

There are a variety of literary types in Jeremiah. “It includes autobiography[26], long poetic discourses[27], reports of oral sermons[28], reports of sermons delivered in written form[29], historical narratives[30], messages to individuals[31], and messages denouncing foreign nations[32].”[33] The material in Jeremiah is not in chronological sequence and the inner logic of its arrangement not easily discernable. However, there are smaller collections of books within the book that reflect somewhat of a thematic arrangement which can be identified by introductory statements. Concerning a literary structure of the book, it can be outlined as followed[34].

1. Introduction (1:1–19)
2. Israel’s Covenantal Adultery (2:1–6:30)
3. False Religion and an Idolatrous People (7:1–10:25)
4. Jeremiah’s Struggles with God and Judah (11:1–20:18)
a. Concerning the drought (14:1-15:4)
5. Jeremiah’s Confrontations (21:1–29:32)
b. Concerning the royal house of Judah (21:11-22:30)
6. Restoration for Judah and Israel (30:1–33:26)
7. God Judges Judah (34:1–45:5)
8. God’s Judgment on the Nations (46:1–51:64)
c. Concerning Babylon and the Babylonians (50:1-51:64)
9. Conclusion: The Fall of Jerusalem (52:1–34)

Again, the book of Jeremiah is an anthology of writings drawn from an entire lifetime of prophetic ministry. The narrative sections scattered throughout the book are loosely structured around the main events of Jeremiah’s life in ministry, which themselves were shaped by Judah’s decline, fall, and exile in Babylon. I think Paul House is correct when he argues:

“It may be helpful to think of the book of Jeremiah as a notebook or scrapbook of things written by the prophet about his ministry. Jeremiah includes enough “news clippings” to piece together the story of his life, but just as important are the prophetic poems he wrote to address the spiritual needs of his generation and to express the emotions of his own suffering soul. Viewed as a story, the book of Jeremiah has a unifying plot conflict: will God’s people listen to God’s warnings and repent of their sin, or will they reject the message of God’s prophet and be destroyed? The city of Jerusalem also has a strong unifying presence in the book.”[35]

The Key Theological Themes in Jeremiah

“Jeremiah exhibits many great themes that stress God’s judgment on covenant infidelity and worldwide sin, as well as God’s determination to restore an international people for himself through the establishing of a new covenant.”[36] Most likely Jeremiah was read by persons awaiting the end of Judah’s exile and the return of God’s people to the land. Understanding this helps us read the book better. It is very clear in the text that the author desired to leave behind a record of the chaotic times in which they lived, God’s message for those times, and God’s message for the future of Israel and the nations.

The Righteous Living God

Jeremiah presents God alone as the living God and that he alone made the world. All other so-called gods are merely worthless, powerless idols.[37] This Creator God called his chosen people to a special relationship[38], gave them his holy word, and promised to bless their temple with his name and presence.[39] Jeremiah makes it clear that God rules the present and the future[40], protects his chosen ones[41], and saves those who turn to him[42]. Jeremiah proclaims that God is absolutely trustworthy; he keeps his promises. Therefore, Jeremiah assures readers that when people repent and turn to God, his grace triumphs over sin and judgment. It is important to note that the tremendous emphasis on the sins and wickedness of Israel serves to draw attention to the holiness of God.

The Problem of Humanity

Jeremiah’s view of human beings is severely realistic. All throughout this book Jerusalem and Judah are shown to be spiritually enslaved to the stupidity of their sin. Jeremiah proclaims that the human heart is sick and beyond curing by anyone but God[43]. The human heart is described as a rock hard object, permanently engraved with sin.[44] “In stead of worshiping their God “they have turned to broken cisterns, sold themselves to be abused slaves, committed adultery, and entrusted themselves to idols that cannot deliver.”[45] [46]. Israel went after other gods[47], defiled the temple by their unwillingness to repent[48], and oppressed one another[49].

The Call to Repentance

Israel and the nations have sinned against God[50] [51], and God will not allow human sin to continue without justice. Jeremiah warns that punishment is coming. In fact, he calls the people over 100 times to “turn around” or “repent.” This involves turning from one’s own way back to the paths of God’s moral and conventional norms.[52] Jeremiah promises that when people turn from their sins and return to God they will receive forgiveness and healing. Jeremiah proclaims that God will renew a humble and repenting people, and he mourns their lack of repentance and thankfulness for God’s mercy[53]. God comforts him with the knowledge that repentance and renewal would eventually come.[54] With this hope Jeremiah continues to call the community to be constantly renewed through repentance.[55] However, “in his sermons Jeremiah warns against false confidence in God’s covenant with Israel. The Lord’s choice of Zion did not mean that the city was inviolable if the nation did not heed his commands.”[56]

The Sinai Covenant

God had made a covenant with Israel which was a binding relational agreement between the two parties, “based on deeds done by God and promises made by God, which Israel accepted by faith in God, for the purpose of living for God as his unique people in the world.”[57] This covenant was rooted in God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob[58] and was based on God’s redemption of Israel from slavery in Egypt.[59] Again, “the two most important factors influencing Jeremiah’s thinking are the Exodus from Egypt[60] and the covenant given to Moses at Sinai.[61] In this respect Jeremiah was a typical Hebrew prophet who calls the people back to obedience to the Sinai covenant.[62][63]” It included standards of living[64] that the people who were called to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”[65] should uphold as they trusted God and lived for him. It included faith-based sacrifices[66] and prayers[67] to deal with the people’s sins. It included clear accountability to God in the form of blessing and cursing.[68]

The Messiah and the New Covenant[69]

As one reads through Jeremiah it becomes evident that God’s judgment is not the final word.[70] Jeremiah foretells of a time when God will “gather the remnant” of Israel and raise up “for David a righteous Branch” who will reign over the faithful ones.[71] When he comes, this King will be “our righteousness”.[72] The good news in those future days is that God would “make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah”.[73] Thus, all the new covenant partners will be believers who are forgiven and empowered by God; he will “remember their sin no more”.[74] Hebrews 8:8–12 quotes Jeremiah 31:31–34 as evidence that the new covenant has come through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The coming of Jesus the Messiah fulfills God’s promises to Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets of a new faithful people of God in continuity with the old people of God. This is God’s remedy for the sick heart[75], putting his law directly on the heart of the new community[76] so they would intrinsically know and be obedient to the law.[77] Again, this is different from the old covenant for a few reasons:

  1. The new covenant will be unbreakable[78]
  2. The members of the new covenant community will be regenerate, have the law written on their hearts.[79]
  3. The new covenant will not operate according to natural line of birth and descent, but through spiritual birth.[80]

God is going to ensure that his people be a people after his own heart. He will ensure through Jesus Christ[81] that the Law will be written internally, not just adhered to externally. The New Covenant was inaugurated by Jesus, but will be consummated in the end times.

  1. [1] 2 Chronicles 34:3-7.
  2. [2] See Deuteronomy 18:15–22 for the background information.
  3. [3] J. G. McConville, Dictionary of Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, 2005, 354.
  4. [4] Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 2006, 321.
  5. [5] Joel R. Soza, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, 2000, 224.
  6. [6] See R.K. Harrison, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, 1973, 34-38.
  7. [7] Charles L. Feinberg, The Expositors Bible Commentary, 1986, 370.
  8. [8] 1:2–3.
  9. [9] 1:6.
  10. [10] 11:21-23; 12:16.
  11. [11] Paul House, ESV Study Bible, 2008, 1361.
  12. [12] 8:18–9:3; 13:15–17.
  13. [13] 20:2.
  14. [14] 26, 37:11-16.
  15. [15] 18:18, 12:16.
  16. [16] 38:1-13.
  17. [17] 38:14-38.
  18. [18] Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 2006, 326.
  19. [19] 16.
  20. [20] 20:14-18.
  21. [21] TIOT, 214
  22. [22] 1:1.
  23. [23] Joel R. Soza, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, 2000, 223.
  24. [24] 36:1–4, 32.
  25. [25] 1:1.
  26. [26] 1:4–19.
  27. [27] 2:1–6:30.
  28. [28] 7:1–8:3; 26:1–9.
  29. [29] 36:1–8.
  30. [30] 37:1–43:13.
  31. [31] 45:1–5.
  32. [32] 46:1–51:64.
  33. [33] Paul House, ESV Study Bible, 2008, 1361.
  34. [34] Adapted from the ESV Study Bible.
  35. [35] Paul House, ESV Study Bible, 2008, 1367.
  36. [36] Paul House, ESV Study Bible, 2008, 1361.
  37. [37] 10:1–16.
  38. [38] Chapters 2–6.
  39. [39] 7:1–8:3.
  40. [40] 1:4–16; 29:1–10.
  41. [41] 1:17–19; 29:11–14; 39:15–18; 45:1–5.
  42. [42] 12:14–17.
  43. [43] 17:9–10.
  44. [44] Joel R. Soza, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, 2000, 226.
  45. [45] James M. Hamilton Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, 2010, 222.
  46. [46] 10:1–16.
  47. [47] Chapters 2–6.
  48. [48] 7:1–8:3; 26:1–11.
  49. [49] 34:8–16.
  50. [50] 34:8–16.
  51. [51] Chapters 46–51.
  52. [52] 6:16.
  53. [53] 8:18–22.
  54. [54] 33:14–26.
  55. [55] J. G. McConville, Dictionary of Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, 2005, 355.
  56. [56] Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 2006, 337.
  57. [57] Paul House, ESV Study Bible, 2008, 1367.
  58. [58] Genesis 12–50.
  59. [59] Exodus 1:1–20:2.
  60. [60] Exodus 11-14.
  61. [61] Exodus 20-40.
  62. [62] 11:1-3.
  63. [63] Joel R. Soza, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, 2000, 224.
  64. [64] Exodus 20–24.
  65. [65] Exodus 19:6.
  66. [66] Leviticus 1–16.
  67. [67] Psalm 32; 51; etc.
  68. [68] Deuteronomy 27–28.
  69. [69] For a good discussion on the covenants see Michael Lawrence, Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church, 2010, pages 58-62.
  70. [70] J. G. McConville, Dictionary of Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, 2005, 352.
  71. [71] 23:3–5
  72. [72] 23:6.
  73. [73] 31:31.
  74. [74] 31:34.
  75. [75] 17:9.
  76. [76] 31:31-34.
  77. [77] Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 2000, 431.
  78. [78] 31:32.
  79. [79] 31:33.
  80. [80] 31:29-30.
  81. [81] Luke 22:20; Hebrews 8 and 10.

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