The book of Jeremiah is a prophetic book that addresses itself primarily to the conscience of the people of Israel and especially to that of Jerusalem and Judah. This is necessary because the people have turned away from God resulting in the threat of judgment. The revival under King Josiah that the people experience at the same time will prove to be only temporary and superficial. Jeremiah knows that the people have not changed inwardly.
The period in which Jeremiah prophesies is long. He begins prophesying after the year in which Josiah cleanses Jerusalem and the land of idols and ends with prophesying after the city of Jerusalem is destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. The entire period covers a time of over 40 years. Jeremiah was born around 646 BC, is called a prophet around 626 BC, and probably dies not long after 586 BC, the year of the fall of Jerusalem. That entire period is a time of misery and distress for Jeremiah. His life can be characterized as one long martyrdom.
Jeremiah, the prophet
Jeremiah tells more about himself than any other prophet. We hear many expressions of his emotions. The prophet’s heart is full of pain and sorrow because he loves the people and at the same time has a deep sense of the relationship in which the people stand to the LORD, Yahweh. This causes a constant inner struggle. On the one hand he sees the value the people have to the LORD and on the other hand he is compelled by a holy jealousy for the glory and rights of God.
The circumstances in which Jeremiah finds himself and the experiences he had in them demonstrate more clearly than anywhere else what it is to be a ‘prophet’. He has served as a loner, without a family – he was not married (Jer 16:2) –, almost without friends and rejected by his people. His service, humanly speaking, was also unsuccessful.
In much of his service, he reminds us of the Lord Jesus more than any other prophet. Jeremiah is like Him in many ways. He was rejected, just like the Lord Jesus. The Lord Jesus wept over Jerusalem; so did Jeremiah. Jeremiah is the lone prophet, as is the Lord Jesus. He is imprisoned without cause and condemned without guilt, as is the Lord Jesus.
However, the similarities are also partial, for the Lord Jesus is perfect in everything and Jeremiah is not. Above all, the Lord Jesus gave His life as a ransom for many, which cannot possibly be said of Jeremiah.
Jeremiah has pleaded for the people with God, but sees that it has no effect with the people. The people reject God and the testimony He sends. The result is that the LORD will no longer listen to the prayers for Israel and no longer even to the prayers of Jeremiah. All this makes the prophet a true man of sorrows.
Two things sustain him. First, the power of the Spirit of God Who leads him and through Whom he announces the judgment, despite the opposition and persecution that are his portion. Second, the revelation of the final blessing with which the people will be blessed according to the immutable counsels of God.
Division of the book
1. Jeremiah 1 recounts the calling of Jeremiah by the LORD to be His prophet.
2. Jeremiah 2-20 are not dated. It seems that most of the prophecies in those chapters originated during the reign of Josiah. Their subjects are powerful testimonies against the people about their unfaithfulness, laced with expressions of the prophet’s soul’s grief. We also hear severe warnings of the invasion of an enemy that will come from the north.
3. Jeremiah 21-45 do not follow a chronological order throughout. They consist of prophecies that were probably made in different time periods. They contain the judgment that will come successively on the different generations of the house of David, as well as on the false prophets who mislead the people. We also find events that concern Jeremiah himself.
4. Jeremiah 46-51 contain prophecies about ten heathen nations.
5. The prophecies end in Jeremiah 52 with the announcements of the different fates of those who were taken away as captives to Babylon and of those who remained with Zedekiah in Jerusalem.
One suggestion for a historical sequence in connection with the kings who reigned during Jeremiah’s prophecy is as follows:
The reign of Josiah (639-609 BC) (Jeremiah 1-6)
The reign of Shallum, i.e. Jehoahaz (609 BC, three months) – no reference (Jeremiah 22)
The reign of Jehoiakim (609-597 BC) (Jeremiah 7-20; 25-26; 35-36; 45-47; 49)
The reign of Jehoiachin (597 BC, three months) (Jeremiah 13; 22-23?)
The reign of Zedekiah (597-586 BC) (Jeremiah 21; 24; 27-34; 37-44; 46; 50-52)