Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Jeremiah: Prophet of Retribution

Posted by foryourfaith on September 2, 2011


For Jeremiah the call to be a prophet was a call from the first moment of his existence. There never was a time, as he viewed his life, when he was not under obligation to God’s commission. The responsibility was both a privilege and a torment throughout his life. He introduces himself by saying, “Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ Then I said, ‘Ah Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.’”

The Book of Jeremiah presents to us a vivid personality, visible in both his external actions and interior struggles. The book is a long and rather formless anthology of oracles from Jeremiah, memoirs, most likely from his faithful and well-educated disciple Baruch, and passages added by other editors and writers. The first half of this book is composed primarily of Jeremiah’s prophecies, most written in passionate and often lyrical poetry. Most of the second half consists of biographical narratives that often overlap with the first half and show the repeated rejection of Jeremiah’s words. The final chapters are a collection of oracles concerning nations outside Israel, with a concluding chapter on the fall of Jerusalem.

It was Jeremiah’s lot to be caught between God and his people in a time of crisis and tragedy. He lived from the hopeful times of the reforms of Josiah through the tyranny of Jehoiakim and the pain of the first deportation under Jehoiachin to the suicidal nationalism that burned during Zedekiah’s years and brought an end to the Davidic kingdom of Judah.

Jeremiah lived in jeopardy. He was never in a position of security, was often viewed as a traitor, and was a cause of conflict and discomfort to those in power. At the same time he was a man of tenderness toward the people of his nation. He felt their suffering and despair as his own agony. In himself he fought against his own prophetic vision because in it he saw the coming darkness of national destruction.

Very little detail is known of the early years of Jeremiah’s work, which began about 626 BC, but the major events occurred in 609 that caused him to step forward as a public and controversial voice. King Josiah had taken advantage of the weakness of Assyria in the face of rising Babylonian power and had reasserted the independence of Judah. But when, in 609, Josiah tried to block Egypt’s army from aiding Assyria against Babylon, he was killed in battle, and his son Jehoahaz became king. After three months, Egypt’s Pharaoh Neco II stepped in, deposed Jehoahaz, and placed his brother Jehoiakim as a puppet on the throne. Jehoiakim imposed heavy taxes not only to pay tribute but also to support his own self-indulgent opulence. Worse, he supported the return of the pagan practices that his father had banned. He and many of the people were confident that, because God’s Temple would provide protection, Judah was safe from Babylonian threats.

Into this scene stepped Jeremiah. He took his stand in the court of the Temple and denounced the false trust in the inviolability of the sanctuary that was being used to mask growing injustice and idolatry. Jeremiah predicted that unless there was repentance and change, the Temple would be destroyed as completely as the old ruined shrine at Shiloh had been; and the people would be forsaken by their God.

The reaction to such treasonous statements was swift and violent, especially from the Temple priests and their supporting prophets: “An when Jeremiah had finished speaking . . . , then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, ‘You shall die!’” (Jeremiah 26:8). Jeremiah was brought to trial on capital charges because he had “prophesied against this city.” But because he received some support from royal officials who opposed the priests and prophets, he was spared an early death.

It was not long before the Egyptian umbrella had fallen to the Babylonians in the battle of Carchemish in 605, and Jehoiakim found himself a Babylonian vassal. It was then that Jeremiah was commissioned by God to commit to writing all the oracles he had pronounced in the years of his work. As Jeremiah dictated, Baruch wrote these on a single scroll. The prophet himself had now been banned from entering the Temple, so he sent Baruch there to read to the people the scroll with its warnings against nationalists dreams and its call for repentance. As before, the dark words of the prophet sent a shiver of fear through his hearers. Sympathetic officials warned Baruch that he and his troublesome master should go into hiding.

The scroll of Jeremiah’s words was confiscated and taken to Jehoiakim’s winter palace to be read before the king. But Jehoiakim had nothing but contempt for the prophet. As one of his men read a few columns from the scroll, Jehoiakim “would cut them off with a penknife and throw them into the fire in the brazier.” The fire could not destroy the message, however; Jeremiah dictated a new scroll to Baruch and added many new prophecies. That scroll probably formed the core of the first half of the book of prophecies.

During the final years of the kingdom of Judah, Jeremiah was often considered an outlaw, an enemy of the state. It was a time of personal pain and sometimes self-doubt. “I have become a laughingstock all the day; every one 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 a derision all day long. If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. For I hear many whispering. Terror is on every side! ‘Denounce him! Let us denounce him!’ say all my familiar friends, watching for my fall” (Jeremiah 20:7-10). Furthermore, the many prophets and priests who supported the king’s hopeful vision of Judean independence from Babylon were Jeremiah’s continual opponents. “They have healed the wound of my people lightly,” he charged, “saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 8:11).

Even after 597, when Nebuchadnezzar had swept through, plundered the Temple, and carried away into exile the new young king, Jehoiachin, and with him much of the nobility, there were prophets who were ready to predict that this was only a momentary setback of nationalist hopes.

Jeremiah fashioned a wooden yoke that he wore in public. Along with the symbolic yoke went God’s pronouncement that he had granted world rule to Nebuchadnezzar; moreover, the people of Judah and their new king, Zedekiah, should bring their necks under his yoke – only then would they live.

That was emphatically not what people wanted to hear. A prophet named Hananiah brought forward a counter-prophecy that God had “broken the yoke of the king of Babylon” and would bring back the exiles and the plundered Temple treasure “within two years” (Jeremiah 28:2-3). With his own dramatic symbolism Hananiah took the yoke bars from Jeremiah’s neck and broke them. Jeremiah’s personal response to this prediction was “Amen! May the Lord do so.” But he soon returned with the prophecy that on the contrary God had replaced the wooden yoke with a yoke iron. This time of trial was to be no mere two-year ripple in the flow of Israel’s history. Jeremiah, more realistically, predicted seventy years – a lifetime – of exile in Babylon.

Under the weak Zedekiah, Judah’s leaders tried again to play Egypt off against Babylon and ended by bringing Jerusalem under a final devastating Babylonian siege. In that setting Jeremiah’s words seemed intolerably subversive to Jerusalem’s petty princes. The prophet was arrested, cast into a muddy cistern, and left to die. Though he was rescued by an Ethiopian servant of the king, there was by this time no avoiding the tragic end of the kingdom. “My grief is beyond healing,” Jeremiah wept. “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved. . . . O that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!”


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