The writings of the biblical prophets are long, dense, and full of confusing and outrageous content. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? PODCAST!! Welcome to BOOK.
This is BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way. Last time we examined the scroll of Isaiah, which presented a prophetic response to two historical crises: the Assyrian conquest of the Northern kingdom of Israel and the devastation and exile of Southern Judah at the hands of Babylon. This week and next we’ll meet two other “major” prophets who lived at the time of the Babylonian exile. Their names are Yirmiyahu (or Jeremiah) and Ezeki’el (or Ezekiel). Jeremiah and Ezekiel give us two unique perspectives on the cataclysmic exile of Judah. For Jeremiah was among those left behind in demolished Jerusalem, and Ezekiel was with those who were dragged off to Babylon. This week we’ll focus on Jeremiah and the lengthy book which bears his name.
Jeremiah was a tormented, miserable dude and truly unique among the prophets of Israel and Judah for a number of reasons which we will explore presently. Here’s how his scroll begins:
 The words of Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin.  The word of the LORD came to him in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign,  and throughout the days of King Jehoiakim the son of Josiah of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah, the son of Josiah of Judah, when Jerusalem went into exile in the fifth month.
We already have more personal information about Jeremiah than we ever got about Isaiah. He is a priest, for one thing, or rather “one of the priests at Anathoth.” This means he is descended from the family of Abiathar, the priestly family who served under David but were disgraced and banished to Anathoth by Solomon in 1 Kings 2. Jeremiah is from a priestly family, though he is not from the family that is currently running the Temple. It’s complicated.
The political backdrop to Jeremiah’s public campaign is fascinating. It ends with conquest and exile, but it begins in much happier times, during the reign of Josiah. You may remember from our discussion of Kings and Chronicles that Josiah was the last good (and in many ways the last real) King of Judah. In the wake of king after king who discarded and disrespected the covenant religion of Israel, Josiah was a reformer who tried his best to clean house and get the nation back on track. It’s during this time of relative peace and progress that Jeremiah receives his “calling.” We continue in chapter 1:
 The word of the LORD came to me:
 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you a prophet concerning the nations.”
 I replied, “Ah, Lord GOD! I do not know how to speak, for I am still a boy.”
 But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am still a boy;
but go where I send you, and speak what I command you.
 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you,
declares the LORD.”
 Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth.
And the LORD said to me, “I have just put my words in your mouth.
 I have appointed you this day over nations and kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down,
to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
Unlike Moses, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, whose callings involved bizarre visions of creatures and lights, Jeremiah simply hears a voice, the voice of Israel’s God giving him a mission. And it’s hard to miss the explicitly political nature of this mission, with all the talk of “nations and kingdoms.” Jeremiah is called to speak truth to power, and like the prophets before him, he’d really rather not, thank you very much. God reassures him and uses two visual puns to make his point.
First, he shows Jeremiah an almond branch and says “I’ll be watching you!” This will confuse us if we don’t know that the Hebrew words for “almond” and “watching” sound alike. Next, Jeremiah sees a boiling pot with a steaming spout pointing to the North. Trouble, God says, is coming from the North. And he isn’t kidding… Remember, the Northern kingdom of Israel has already been destroyed and desolate for generations, and Judah has managed to avoid the same fate, up til now.
For the next ten chapters, Jeremiah delivers one scathing critique of Judah after another, insisting that the kingdom’s government and religion are irreparably corrupt. He employs the gut wrenching metaphor of a broken marriage vow, with God as the forsaken cuckold and Jerusalem as the unfaithful bride. This is chapter 3:
 “If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him
and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her?
Would not that land be greatly polluted?
You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me?
declares the LORD.
 Lift up your eyes to the bare heights, and see!
Where have you not been ravished?
By the waysides you have sat awaiting lovers like a bandit in the desert.
You have polluted the land with your vile whoredom.
 Therefore the showers have been withheld, and the spring rain has not come;
yet you have the forehead of a whore; you refuse to be ashamed.”
And it’s not as if Jeremiah is simply ignoring King Josiah’s reforms, it’s as if those very reforms were the target of his critique, as if to say “it’s all too-little-too-late.” Continuing on:
 Have you not just now called to me, ‘My father, you are the friend of my youth—
 will he be angry forever, will he be indignant to the end?’
Behold, you have spoken, but you have done all the evil that you could.”
Jeremiah goes on to attack what he sees as the broken religion of Judah: their over-reliance on the Temple and their ignorance of the Torah (chapter 8). And in chapter 10 he outright mocks the sorts of pagan idols that had become popular in the kingdom. Verse 3:
 … A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman.
 He decorates it with silver and gold; he fastens it with hammer and nails so it doesn’t fall over.
 It’s like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, it cannot speak;
It has to be carried, for it cannot walk.
Do not be afraid of it, for it cannot do evil, neither is it in it to do any good.”
And whereas most prophets before him offered the hope of rescue and restoration should Judah change her ways, Jeremiah’s message is punctuated with a warning of inevitable doom. Verse 22:
 Hark a noise! It is coming—
a great commotion out of the north
to make the cities of Judah a desolation, a lair for jackals.
The enemy is coming for us, and when they get here it’s all over. And remember: this is when things are ostensibly going WELL. This is the craziness of Jeremiah’s message and his moment. Isaiah spoke truth to power when the king’s foolishness took Judah to the brink of destruction. Jeremiah must be a divinely-appointed party-pooper and tell Josiah, “Sorry, your majesty, your reforms are nice and things are going well, but it’s all too-little, too-late.”
Given the inherent negativity and conflict in Jeremiah’s campaign, it’s not surprising what a toll it all took on the man. Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet,” and most of his writing consists of laments and complaints. Also not surprising is the strong opposition which grew in response to his message, which only intensified the prophet’s torment. The next 10 chapters are about Jeremiah’s personal experiences, and in keeping with the tone of his mission they aren’t particularly fun. Certain men from his hometown rise up and threaten to kill Jeremiah if he doesn’t keep his mouth shut (chapter 11), and a priest named Pashhur has him briefly imprisoned (chapter 20).
Meanwhile, God continually supplies the prophet with unpopular things to say, most of them unhappy symbolic illustrations of Judah’s fate: a once-beautiful loincloth buried in the mud is the once-proud nation in exile (chapter 13), jars full of wine are the drunken uselessness of Judah’s kings and citizens (chapter 13), a lump of malleable clay on a potter’s wheel is the vulnerable city of Jerusalem (chapter 18), and a broken flask is the broken people of Judah (chapter 19). These don’t win Jeremiah any fans. And when the constant gloom of his message and the increasing persecution push Jeremiah over the edge, he loses his cool and has a breakdown in chapter 20, verse 7:
 LORD, you have deceived me, and I was deceived;
you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me.
 For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.
ENOUGH! cries Jeremiah, but his work is not done. In fact, the next 10 chapters detail the prophet’s confrontations with his opposition, beginning in chapter 21 with his unhappy words to the last kings of Judah. The last few kings, including the sons of Josiah, were typically stooges of either Egypt or Babylon, both of whom were fighting for control of Judah at the time. The last king, Zedekiah, was an installed puppet of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. Jeremiah’s message to the kings is this: you are finished. In chapter 21 Zedekiah asks the prophet for a word of hope against Babylon’s tyranny, and this is the reply, in verse 8:
 …Thus says the LORD: Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death.
 He who stays in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence,
but he who goes out and surrenders to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have his life as a prize of war.
 For I have set my face against this city for harm and not for good, declares the LORD: it shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire.
Then, in chapter 23, for the first time, Jeremiah starts talking funny:
 “The days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’
 “Therefore, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when they shall no longer say, ‘As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’  but ‘As the LORD lives who brought up and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.’ Then they shall dwell in their own land.”
Up to this point Jeremiah’s message has been one of inevitable doom and condemnation. Suddenly he sounds more like Isaiah, imagining a righteous king who will restore Judah and bring about a New Exodus. What happened? Well, the timeline of Jeremiah is a bit muddled because this is not a typical narrative. These are the collected writings and sayings of the prophet, so time passes and skips around without us noticing. Jeremiah lived to witness the Babylonian invasion, and he watched in horror as the priests and officials were dragged off into exile. Words of warning give way to words of shock and – ultimately – words of hope. Jeremiah will return to this theme, but for now there are more confrontations to be had. This time, the prophet faces off against some rivals – prophets with opposing viewpoints.
This is a new idea for us, but it only makes sense that in times of strife and chaos, pundits would pop up on all sides with all manner of perspectives. Jeremiah has this to say about the other prophets of Judah, in chapter 23:
 “In the prophets of Samaria I saw an unsavory thing:
they prophesied by Baal and led my people Israel astray.
 But in the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a horrible thing:
they commit adultery and walk in lies;
they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from his evil;
all of them have become like Sodom to me, and its inhabitants like Gomorrah.”
We get a little more insight into the type of prophets Jeremiah confronted in chapter 28 as he faces off with a “false prophet” called Hananiah. Their epic rap battle takes place in front of the priests and officials of Zedekiah’s administration. Jeremiah comes before the assembly wearing a yoke, a wooden frame like those worn by beasts of burden, which represented the oppression of Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar. Hananiah triumphantly breaks the yoke, freeing Jeremiah from its bondage and makes this proclamation, in verse 11:
 And Hananiah spoke in the presence of all the people, saying, “Thus says the LORD: Even so will I break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon from the neck of all the nations within two years.”
Unfortunately, he was just telling the group what they wanted to hear. The exile lasted for seventy years, and Hananiah was dead within one. It’s easy to demonize your opponents in the heat of a political battle, but hindsight reveals who was on the mark and who was dead wrong.
Then in (what we call) chapter 30 Jeremiah returns to the topic of Israel’s future. This is from chapter 31:
 “Days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and the seed of beast.  And it shall come to pass that as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring harm, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, declares the LORD.  In those days they shall no longer say:
“‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’
 But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man who eats sour grapes, his own teeth shall be set on edge.
Jeremiah quotes a popular saying of his day, “Fathers have eaten sour grapes and the kids’ teeth are set on edge.” Basically, this means that the mistakes of one generation will be visited upon the next. This kind of thinking goes all the way back to the ten commandments in Exodus 20, which state plainly that God will hold every generation accountable for the sins of previous generations. This is how the covenant law worked – every generation was born into the covenant and picked up where the last one left off. Now, at the “end of all things,” the covenant is shattered and most of Jeremiah’s contemporaries were quick to blame prior generations for their misfortune. Whoever was to blame (previous generations, the current generation, Babylon), the undeniable fact was that the covenant had been broken. A Torah that gave identity to a specific group in a specific territory was of little use when the people were scattered in foreign lands. Jeremiah addresses this harsh reality in a most surprising way. Chapter 31, verse 31:
 “Days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah,  not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD.  For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Jeremiah says that Israel needs a new covenant, a new Torah, a new arrangement with God to get them through the horror of exile. And it can’t be based on inheritance or possession of land anymore, so it will have to happen in the hearts and minds of the people. This kind of talk would have been unthinkable in previous generations, but now it’s the only way forward if this community is going to preserve their identity.
This is a major evolution in Israel’s religious and political thinking (and we should realize by now that the two are one in the same). Just as the Mosaic covenant (the Torah) was the template for how ancient Israel viewed the world and its place in it, the exile and all of its hopes and horrors are now the defining rubric of what will soon be called “Jewish” identity. Israel was born when God saved a group of people from Egypt. That same group now needs to be reborn in a similarly spectacular fashion from the cauldron of Babylon. This is the new central tension for the rest of the bible.
We’ve hit the theological climax of Jeremiah’s message, but the scroll presents many more episodes from his life. Let’s take a quick look at them.
- Jeremiah buys a plot of land in Judah DURING THE BABYLONIAN SIEGE as a defiant symbol of hope. (chapter 32)
- Jeremiah, once the harbinger of doom for the line of David, swears on behalf of God that the Davidic line will never end. (chapter 33)
- King Jehoiakim bans Jeremiah from the Temple, so he hires a scribe named Baruch to write down all of his words on a scroll and read them there out loud. The king gets word of the disturbance and has the scroll burned. Jeremiah and Baruch simply produce another copy. (chapter 36)
- The army of Egypt attacks Judah from the south, driving the Babylonian army temporarily back up North. When Jeremiah travels North to check it out, he is falsely accused of deserting to the enemy and is once again thrown into prison. (chapter 37)
- Jeremiah is thrown into a cistern (basically a small well) by the king’s cronies but is rescued later on by a sympathetic eunuch, only to be thrown back in the palace jail. (chapter 38)
- Jeremiah sits in prison until the day when Babylon finally makes a breach into Jerusalem. With the enemy at the door, the captain of the guard releases Jeremiah and gives him a choice: come with the rest of us to Babylon and I’ll look after you, or find a hiding place and stay in Jerusalem. Jeremiah chooses to stay. (chapter 40)
- Jeremiah warns a group of terrified Judahites not to flee to Egypt, a popular destination for terrified Judahites. They consider his warning and then decide to go to Egypt, forcing Jeremiah to go with them. In Egypt, Jeremiah continue to rant against his idolatrous and unfaithful compatriots. (chapter 42-44)
Sadly, Jeremiah remains in Egypt and that’s the last we hear of him. The book ends with a few rants against Babylon and other enemies of Israel, and a final account of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, as well as a record of the three thousand or so citizens of Judah who were carried off into exile. A pathetic ending for a tragic book. And by the way, there’s another bible book called Lamentations, traditionally attributed to Jeremiah, which we may or may not get to so we’ll mention it now. It consists of several poems and prayers mourning the loss of Jerusalem and the Temple. Jeremiah’s authorship is, of course, in question, but it is clearly borne out of the same historical moment.
Of course, this is all just one side of the story. Next time we’ll meet Ezekiel, the closest thing to a leader for the people of Judah in Babylonian exile. His visions and words are surprising and strange, and his prophetic response to exile has some echoes of Jeremiah’s, with some additional innovations. It will also be our first opportunity to discuss APOCALYPTIC, which is very exciting indeed.
This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast, I encourage you to share, like, tweet, tweep, kleep, blog, tumbl, stumble, chumble, and flooz it to your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.