To All The World
The world is a confusing place right now. We believe that faithful proclamation of the gospel is what our hostile and disoriented world needs. Do you believe that too? Help TGC bring biblical wisdom to the confusing issues across the world by making a gift to our international work.
Invitation to Jeremiah
The book of Jeremiah navigates a crucial transition in God’s epic story. It narrates the end of one era—that of the old covenant—and it points to a new and better age with a new and better covenant. Its theme verse brings both sides together: Yahweh has set Jeremiah “over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10). The terrible sin of Judah and of the nations demands judgment: plucking up, breaking down, destroying, and overthrowing. But God’s firm commitment to his covenant promises means that grace wins in the end—there will be building and planting.
How Does the Book of Jeremiah Fit in the History of Redemption?
Long before Jeremiah, Yahweh had promised to Abraham that his offspring would become abundant, would inherit the promised land, and would live in covenant harmony with God (Gen 17:6–8). The story began well: the people of Israel did multiply (Exod 1:7), God brought them out of Egypt and made a covenant with them at Sinai (Exod 3–Num 10), and then he renewed the covenant with them (Deuteronomy) before giving them the land (Joshua). On top of these generous fulfillments of his promises to Abraham, God made additional promises: he swore that the sons of Levi (specifically the sons of Phinehas; Num 25:12–13) will be his priests forever, and he swore that the sons of David will reign forever and build a temple for Yahweh’s dwelling (2Sam 7:13–16).
All seemed to be going well when Solomon, the son of David, built the temple and dedicated it to Yahweh with great fanfare (1Kgs 8). Yahweh himself crowned the ceremony with his glorious presence (1Kgs 8:10–11). Yet all was not well with Israel’s soul. Since the beginning of its history, Israel had marred its relationship with Yahweh through constant sin. Entire periods (e.g., the judges) were marked by idolatry, apostasy, and “everyone [doing] what was right in his own eyes” (Judg 21:25). And so, as Solomon prayed about the future on that day of the temple’s dedication, his mind was preoccupied with the ongoing problem of sin: “there is no one who does not sin,” he said (1Kgs 8:46). And therefore, he prayed that Yahweh would not forsake the people when they inevitably turned against him (8:46–53).
Ironically, Solomon himself was the first great apostate in 1 Kings: “His wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God” (1Kgs 11:4). Solomon led the way into idolatry, and his son Rehoboam furthered the folly by fracturing the kingdom into two parts: the northern tribes (henceforward called “Israel”) and the southern tribes (which the sons of David ruled, called “Judah”). Israel in the north, with no good kings to lead her, hurtled downward into sin faster than Judah. Notwithstanding the dire warnings of prophets like Hosea, Israel refused to repent, and eventually Yahweh sent the Assyrian army, which defeated and deported the people of Israel in 722 BC.
All that remained was Judah, which was delivered from Assyria at the last moment through the prayer of Hezekiah (2Kgs 19:14–37). Despite this gracious deliverance, Hezekiah’s godly reign was followed by the deplorable reign of Manasseh (687–643 BC). Manasseh’s wickedness knew no bounds: he worshiped false gods in the temple itself, burned his own children as offerings, dealt with occult mediums, and shed much innocent blood (2Kgs 21:3–6, 16). The sins of Manasseh pushed Yahweh’s wrath to a boiling point, and Yahweh resolved to judge Judah as he did the northern kingdom (2Kgs 21:10–15).
But shortly after Manasseh, Judah had one last good king (arguably, her best): Josiah. Josiah’s reign was a renaissance of godly worship, reverence for the Scriptures, and justice. And it was during Josiah’s reign that Jeremiah received his call from Yahweh to become a prophet (Jer 1:2; approximately 627 BC). As Jeremiah began his ministry, big questions loomed for Judah: Will it be possible for Judah to avoid the judgment decreed against her on account of Manasseh? Will Josiah’s reformation mark a permanent and lasting change for the better in Judah’s character? Will Yahweh help Judah to resist the rising danger of Babylon, the new empire that asserted its dominance after the dissolution of Assyria? (Assyria fell shortly after Jeremiah’s call, in 605 BC.) The answers Yahweh gave to these questions through Jeremiah go far beyond the political concerns of ancient Judah and strike at the heart of what it means for every person to know and walk with God.
How Did We Get the Book of Jeremiah?
We know very little about how and when the book was produced, but it certainly was a long process. Jeremiah ministered from approximately 627–580 BC. His life was constantly in tumult. Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, came against Jerusalem once in 597 and deported the elite of Judah, including king Jehoiachin (the grandson of Josiah and the second-to-last king of Judah). Then Nebuchadnezzar returned to sack Jerusalem and deport the last king of Judah, Zedekiah. This final destruction took place in 587. After the exile, Jeremiah remained in Judah, but a few years later, Judean brigands forcibly moved him to Egypt (Jer 43:1–7), where, apparently, he died.
During his ministry, Jeremiah was receiving divine oracles, preaching them to Judah, and then writing them down at divine command (30:2; 36:2). While a few listened sympathetically, most people vehemently rejected his message. His own family turned against him (12:6), and several times Jeremiah narrowly escaped with his life (26:24; 36:26; 38:13). Some of his writings were not so fortunate. In one dramatic instance, the wicked king Jehoiakim burned Jeremiah’s scroll column by column as it was read (36:23). Yet the written word proved more durable than the king’s defiance: with the help of his scribe, Baruch, Jeremiah rewrote his book, adding more words than before (36:32).
As the book underwent its travails, Jeremiah himself was morphing. It was extremely difficult to be a prophet whom Yahweh constrained to preach condemnation and judgment (20:8). His book witnesses to a mounting conflict between Jeremiah and Yahweh on this account (see especially chs. 10–20), as well as a resolution between them. Thus, the book is the mature product of a lifetime of struggle and reflection about God’s difficult providence for his people.
Indeed, there is considerable evidence that the book is not merely the product of Jeremiah’s reflection, but that God raised up editors after Jeremiah (perhaps Baruch and others) to complete the book’s preparation under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (cf. Prov 25:1). In addition to many verses that speak of Jeremiah in the third person and that provide circumstantial information about the date of his oracles (e.g., Jer 25:1), 51:64 concludes with, “Thus far are the words of Jeremiah.” An additional chapter that is much like 2 Kings 25 follows, which ends with events that probably transpired long after Jeremiah’s death (Jer 52:31–34). It is difficult to know for certain if other verses in the book are the work of a later editor or the prophet himself. Rather than speculating, it is best to remember that the primary author of Scripture is God himself (2Tim 3:16; 1Pet 1:11; 2Pet 1:21), who reveals himself infallibly through a multiplicity of human agents.
One other fact points to a complicated editorial process: the Greek translation of the book (the Septuagint, or “LXX”) is approximately one seventh shorter than the Hebrew text that has come down to us (known as the Masoretic Text, or “MT”). Most of the additional words in the MT are short phrases that clarify or fill out Jeremiah’s message. Only a few long paragraphs (33:14–26; 39:4–13; 51:44b–49a; 52:27b–30) are found exclusively in the MT. Thus, while some scholars find slight nuances to be different (e.g., MT seems slightly more pro-Babylonian than LXX), the message of the two editions is basically the same. Most scholars believe the LXX was translated from an earlier Hebrew edition of the book, before the Hebrew text reached the form now preserved in MT. Intriguingly, a couple of fragments from Jeremiah preserved among the Dead Sea Scrolls line up with MT, while one fragment lines up with LXX, suggesting that both Hebrew editions were in circulation about the time of Jesus. Other than the few fragments found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, there is no extant copy of the Hebrew edition from which the LXX was translated. The earliest complete edition of the book of Jeremiah in Hebrew (MT) is the Aleppo Codex (~920 AD), and modern English translations are made from a very similar medieval manuscript, the Leningrad Codex (1008 AD).
How Should We Interpret the Book of Jeremiah?
Reading as a Christian unlocks the immense spiritual riches of this book.1 As Christians, we know that the Spirit who inspired the book of Jeremiah was the “Spirit of Christ,” who “predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories” (1Pet 1:11). This same Spirit speaks in the rest of Scripture as well. Thus, we best understand the book of Jeremiah when we read it in light of the whole Christian canon, and especially in light of Jesus Christ, who is the climax of history.
After the exile to Babylon, a remnant did return to the land of Judah in several waves, as narrated by Ezra-Nehemiah. However, this return was not the glorious restoration promised by Jeremiah and the rest of the prophets. The “branch” (offspring) of David’s line did not reign, the new covenant did not commence, and Yahweh did not return to his temple (cf. Jer 23:5; 31:33–34; Ezra 6:16–22). Ezra-Nehemiah was merely a “little reviving” amid the people’s ongoing exile and bondage (Ezra 9:8).2
Only in Jesus do we see the fulfillment of all that Jeremiah had spoken. Jesus received in himself the full brunt of God’s judgment, a judgment that his people deserved, but which Jesus took in our place. Thus, the judgment of Babylon coming against Judah in the 6th century BC was only a shadowy first fulfillment of the wrath that Jeremiah predicted. Jesus’s death on the cross was the ultimate fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecies of judgment (1Pet 1:11; consider John 18:11 in light of Jer 25:28). What is more, in his resurrection, Jesus fulfilled the restoration promises of Jeremiah. He inaugurated the new covenant by his blood (Luke 22:20; Heb 8:8–13) and reigns as king forever (Luke 1:32–33). From his throne issues all the blessings that Jeremiah had promised after exile, but only in a partial manner for now. We still await the consummation of God’s redemptive promises at Christ’s return.
The book of Jeremiah, then, must be interpreted in light of Jesus’s own authoritative understanding of the book. From Jesus’s perspective, “all that the prophets have spoken” points to his own suffering and glory (Luke 24:25–26). Therefore, the most important question we must ask as we proceed through Jeremiah is, How does this passage explain the necessity that Christ must suffer and then enter his glory?
As Christians who are united to Christ in his death and resurrection, we are sharers in his suffering and glory (Rom 6:4; Eph 2:6; 1Pet 4:13). Therefore, the book of Jeremiah is also about we who are in Christ. Not only does the book show our depravity and desperate need for a savior, but it also displays (in types and shadows) the dynamics of the Christian life. We will learn much about ourselves if we ask, How does this passage adumbrate the suffering and glory of the Christian church?3
Answering both of these questions—about Christ and his church—requires us to resist an overly wooden, literal approach to prophecy. Some aspects should be read literally (e.g., now a Davidic scion does reign in justice and righteousness, as Jeremiah had predicted; Jer 23:5; Luke 1:32). But most of the book speaks of God’s future redemptive work in imagery that is drawn from the old covenant, but that ought not to be taken literally. Prophecy clothes the future in terms that make sense to the present.4 For example, let us assume that after Jeremiah, no watchman literally called out in the hill country of Ephraim, “Arise, and let us go up to Zion” (Jer 31:6); nevertheless (as narrated in Acts), the remnant of the northern tribes heard the upward call of the gospel through the apostles and then embraced Christ. These Samaritans (the equivalent of ancient Ephraimites) worshiped God, not in Zion but in the new covenant mode of approaching God’s heavenly sanctuary through faith in Christ (John 4:21; Acts 8:1–17; Heb 12:22). Can we not recognize that through Christ, God has more than fulfilled the heart of his promise through Jeremiah? Indeed, Abraham himself was looking for a better country than the literal land of promise, the heavenly new creation that Christ has gained for us (Heb 11:10, 16). And in addition to uniting northern and southern kingdoms (which was promised in Jer 31:6), God has gone so far as to unite the gentiles to the Jews as fellow heirs, fellow worshipers, and fellow offspring of Abraham (Gal 3:28–29; Eph 3:6). To avoid overly wooden interpretation, we therefore ask, How does the NT fulfillment clarify what this prophecy is all about?5
Finally, the book of Jeremiah, divine as it is, is also an exquisitely crafted piece of human writing. We do well, therefore, to read it closely and sensitively, according to the stylistic conventions and historical context in which it was written. Here are a few stylistic conventions we will often see:
Diagram of the Last Five Kings of Judah
What Are the Most Important Ideas in the Book of Jeremiah?
The rich themes in this book coalesce around the basic timeline of judgment unto restoration. Everything in the book connects to this twofold message, and Jeremiah’s own commission reflects this dual emphasis, as God calls him both to destroy and to build, both to uproot and to plant (Jer 1:10).
Regarding judgment, God dedicates great space to detailing Judah’s sin and their worthiness of judgment. Judah is rife with idolatry, child sacrifice, and violent oppression of the poor (2:34; 7:9, 31). The kings hope for deliverance from military allies instead of from Yahweh (2:18; 37:7). They ignore God’s law and do not know him, yet they still claim the privileges of their relationship with him (2:27; 3:4; 7:10). Yahweh likens all of this to a wife who cheats on her husband but who still wants him to protect her and provide for her (2:27; 3:4). Judah even goes so far as to claim they are innocent (2:23, 35) and to act bewildered when God comes against them in judgment (5:19; 16:10).
In his mercy, God first demands their repentance and holds out the possibility that judgment might be averted if they repent (18:1–11). However, as time wears on, it becomes clear that Judah not only will not repent, but they cannot repent (6:10; 7:27). All their attempts to keep God’s law are short-lived and fickle (e.g., 34:11); God even calls these attempts “fake repentance” (3:10). As a result, Jeremiah cannot find a single righteous person in Judah (5:1–5).
After a while, a shift takes place in the book, and God ceases to offer repentance. He refuses to hear any more prayers from Jeremiah (7:16; 15:1). This closing down of hope finds a powerful depiction in chapters 18–19, where malleable clay becomes hardened into a vessel of destruction.6 Judgment is now certain, and God’s covenant with Judah demands that he enact curses against them for their disobedience (Deut 28:15–68; Jer 11:1–8). The only future for Judah now is through exile.
The proper response in this moment of crisis is, therefore, to surrender to the king of Babylon (21:8–10). God promises that those who honor Nebuchadnezzar as the new rightful king will have their lives as “prizes of war” (21:9). But for many in Judah, Jeremiah’s message of surrender seems like a betrayal of his nation (38:4). Jeremiah encounters constant opposition throughout his ministry, particularly from the leaders. People call for his execution (26:11), throw him into a cistern to die (38:6), beat him and put him in the stocks (20:2), accuse him of madness and treachery (29:26–27), and reject him outright (43:1–7; 44:16–19). Perhaps his strongest opposition is in the realm of ideas. A powerful party of false prophets arises who declares the opposite of Jeremiah’s message. First, they tell people that everything is fine (“peace, peace”; 6:14; 8:11), then (when everything isn’t fine after Nebuchadnezzar attacks in 597) they say that the punishments will soon be over (28:3, 11).
In contrast to these false prophets, Jeremiah insists that Judah’s soul malady is so profound that only a profound judgment will suffice (17:9). Yahweh will utterly devastate Judea and return the land to primordial chaos (4:23–26), making it devoid of inhabitants. Everything will be lost: land, people, king, temple, and any vestiges of joy. In Yahweh’s plan, the exile will be long: “70 years” (25:11–12; 29:10), a symbolic duration which receives greater elaboration later (Dan 9:2, 24).
Under the pressure of so much opposition, Jeremiah nearly perishes. Indeed, he so struggles with Yahweh’s call on his life that eventually, after much protest, he renounces his call and curses the day of his birth (Jer 20:14–15). The prophet of ruin has himself been ruined. But miraculously, he emerges on the other side of this self-negation with new purpose and strength (21:1). Indeed, when exile comes in all its horror—just as Jeremiah had predicted—Jeremiah is proven to be a true prophet (Deut 18:22).
Thus, Jeremiah himself is a picture of the new life that only comes when one has passed through judgment. At the end of the valley of the shadow of death is a feast. And so, those who have endured exile begin to hear a new message from the prophet. Amazingly, the exiles are now termed “good figs” (Jer 24:4–7) and made heirs of a glorious restoration.
While Jeremiah does not live to see this restoration fulfilled (as discussed above, it only emerges in the work of Jesus), he does act as a new Moses, promising a new exodus (16:14–15; 23:7–8) and a new covenant (31:31–34). But this new exodus will be a decisive deliverance, not just from some foreign enemy, but from that great enemy of God’s people, sin. The new covenant will be better than the old. While the old covenant had good laws, it lacked the power to transform Israel’s heart so they could obey. The new covenant will have this power (24:7; 31:33–34; 32:40). At last, God’s people will really know him and obey him from the heart! Jeremiah promises that when God works this inner transformation, he will also restore a hundredfold all the blessings his people lost in the exile. New blessings will also emerge, such as the salvation of the nations. In the end, Yahweh will be vindicated not only as a just judge, but also as a gracious and compassionate God who is true to his ancient covenant promises (16:15; 33:20–26).
Yahweh must tear down Judah and the whole old covenant order because of the power of sin, but he promises to build his people up again with a new and better covenant, which will enable them to obey.
“See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
— Jeremiah 1:10 ESV
I. The Call of Jeremiah (1:1–19)
II. Introduction to the Book’s Themes (2:1–4:4)
A. Judah’s Heinous Spiritual Adultery (2:1–3:5)
B. God’s Promise to Heal Their Faithlessness (3:6–4:4)
III. The Plucking Up and Tearing Down of Judah (4:5–24:10)
A. Series 1: Judah’s Demise and Jeremiah’s Lament (4:5–9:26)
B. Series 2: Judah’s Condemnation and Jeremiah’s Protest of God’s Ways (10:1–13:27)
C. Series 3: Judah’s Irreversible Judgment and Jeremiah’s Unraveling (14:1–20:18)
D. Hope Reawakened, but Only through Judgment (21:1–24:10)
IV. The Hinge: Babylon’s Temporary Hegemony (25:1–38)
V. The Building and Planting of Judah (26:1–33:26)
A. Jeremiah’s Preservation from Death (26:1–24)
B. The True Nature of Exile: Long, but Hopeful (27:1–29:32)
C. A Collage of Hopeful Promises (30:1–31:40)
D. A Sign-Act of Hope: A Field Purchased (32:1–44)
E. The Reversal of All the Evil of Exile (33:1–26)
VI. The Outworking of Jeremiah’s Words in History (34:1–45:5)
A. Zedekiah’s Fickle Heart Contrasted with the Rechabites’ Steadfastness (34:1–35:19)
B. Jehoiakim’s Rebellious Heart Contrasted with Ebed-Melech’s Faithfulness (36:1–38:28)
C. Judgment’s Inability to Change Stubborn Hearts (39:1–44:30)
D. A Word of Stern Encouragement to Baruch (45:1–5)
VII. The Plucking Up and Tearing Down of the Nations (46:1–51:64)
VIII. The Accomplishment of Judah’s Plucking Up and Tearing Down (52:1–34)
The Call of Jeremiah (1:1–19)
The opening chapter establishes two things: first, that Jeremiah is an authoritative messenger of Yahweh, and second, that his message is deeply challenging, but not without hope. The opening verses characterize the whole book as the words of Jeremiah, who received Yahweh’s word (1:1–3). Then Jeremiah narrates his call (1:4–10), followed by two orienting visions (1:11–16) and Yahweh’s promise of deliverance (1:17–19).
1:4–10 The call narrative eventually arrives at its goal, which is the ordination of Jeremiah to the office of prophet (1:9–10). But first Yahweh deals with Jeremiah’s objections. When Yahweh announces to Jeremiah that he has long intended him to be a prophet to the nations (1:4–5), Jeremiah is appalled. He objects that he is unqualified because of his inability to speak, which is itself the result of his youth (1:6). By “youth” Jeremiah probably means he is a young person, perhaps a teenager, but the term can be used for adults who are considerably older, yet who feel their inferiority (cf. 1Kgs 3:7).
The following verses dismantle Jeremiah’s objections. First, Yahweh reminds him of his duty to go where he is called regardless of whether he feels qualified (Jer 1:7; cf. Josh 1:16). Second, Yahweh addresses the real issue, which is not Jeremiah’s qualifications, but his fears (Jer 1:8). In context, the “them” whom he must not fear is his audience, which includes both the nations (1:5) and the people of Judah (1:18). Jeremiah must not fear them because Yahweh will be with him, a promise that Yahweh develops in 1:17–19.
Next Yahweh deals with Jeremiah’s inability to speak. Yahweh touches his mouth, puts his words there (1:9), and commissions him with his life mission: to judge (plucking up and breaking down) and to restore (building and planting). Jeremiah is to have great authority: he will be Yahweh’s agent for the fall and the rise of nations. Indeed, his call reminds us of other great transitional figures: Moses, who also disputed his call and yet was the agent of Israel’s establishment (Exod 4:10); Joshua, who was told to obey and to whom God promised deliverance (Josh 1:16); Isaiah, whose mouth was touched with a burning coal (Isa 6:7); and Isaiah’s servant figure, whom Yahweh “formed” and “called” from the womb (Isa 44:2, 24; 49:1, 5). As one in whom Yahweh has placed his words, Jeremiah becomes part of a great line of true prophets (see Deut 18:18).
1:11–16 Yahweh orients Jeremiah to his prophetic ministry by giving him two visions. First, Jeremiah sees an almond “sprout” (we opt for this translation over “branch”). The word “almond” (šāqēd) and the word for “watching” (šōqēd) sound similar. The parallel seems to be that just as an almond tree is the first to blossom and show new life in spring, so the decisive turning point for the accomplishment of Yahweh’s word is Yahweh himself, who watches over his words (see esp. 31:28). Jeremiah does not need to guarantee the words he speaks; Yahweh himself guarantees them.
The second vision is of a boiling pot, tilting from the north (1:13–16). The pot is about to spill boiling liquid, which corresponds to the disaster that is about to come upon the land of Judah from the mysterious “enemy from the north” (later identified as Babylon). Yahweh decodes the image in 1:15–16: an enemy army will come at Yahweh’s behest to subjugate Jerusalem. Yahweh so associates himself with this enemy that when they pronounce judgments against Judah, it is as though Yahweh himself is pronouncing judgment for all their idolatry (1:16).
1:17–19 Finally, Yahweh encourages Jeremiah by returning to his promise in 1:8. Jeremiah must be faithful to his calling and not fear his audience, for Yahweh himself is with him. The promise of Yahweh being with someone often comes up in the context of war, where warriors are encouraged by Yahweh, whose presence fighting at their side makes them invincible (Deut 31:23; Josh 3:7). But in this case, Yahweh casts Jeremiah as an impenetrable city with iron pillars and bronze walls (Jer 1:18). In contrast to Jerusalem, a city that is doomed to fall, Jeremiah becomes an alternative “city.” In addition to God promising that Jeremiah himself will be strong to survive the onslaught of opposition that his words will engender, his words will also offer hope and deliverance to others amid the coming crisis.
As a prophet who proclaims a message of judgment unto restoration, Jeremiah points forward to the ultimate prophet, Jesus, who proclaims the necessity of his own crucifixion and resurrection, and who calls his disciples to follow him (Luke 9:22–23). As Yahweh was with Jeremiah to enable him to complete his calling and protect him from fear, so Jesus promises to be with us (Matt 28:18–20). Notwithstanding our inadequacies, we cannot fail, for God is still watching over his Word to perform it.
Introduction to the Book’s Themes (2:1–4:4)
Now that we have met the prophet, Jeremiah 2:1–4:4 introduces us to the great themes of the book. Two complementary metaphors evoke the horror of the people’s sin: (1) God’s people are an adulterous wife, and (2) they are faithless sons. The text shifts rapidly between these two metaphors. It also shifts rapidly between Israel (the northern kingdom), which by Jeremiah’s time was long gone, and Judah (the southern kingdom). Although their stories are distinct (3:6–11), the basic narrative of apostasy is the same. (In the discussion of chapter 2 below, we will use “Israel” to refer to both the northern and southern kingdoms.)
Judah’s Heinous Spiritual Adultery (2:1–3:5)
In 2:1–3:5, the adulterous wife is the dominant image. Yahweh begins by reminiscing about their early days, their “honeymoon” (2:2–3). Although a glance back at Exodus–Numbers hardly produces a rosy picture of Israel, Yahweh says that their behavior at that time was true devotion in comparison to the flagrant evil they are now perpetrating.
The rest of the chapter follows a literary form called a “covenant lawsuit,” where Jeremiah, Yahweh’s prosecuting lawyer, brings charges against Yahweh’s faithless wife (2:4–30), culminating in Yahweh (who is both the judge and the aggrieved party) declaring their guilt and their sentence (2:31–37). Five charges emerge, interspersed with Yahweh’s poignant cries of regret and indignation.
2:5–9 The first charge is that Israel has proven empty and forgetful of Yahweh and his Law. Even though Yahweh has done nothing to deserve their ill treatment, Israel has “gone after” worthlessness (2:5, 8) instead of “going after” Yahweh (2:2; translated “followed” in ESV). By going after worthlessness (i.e., idols), they became worthless, for we become what we worship (Ps 115:8; Hos 9:10). The people refused to remember all God had done for them in bringing them through the wilderness (Jer 2:6) and in giving them the land (2:7). The leaders ignored God’s Law and sought insight from Baal instead (2:8).
2:10–13 Second, Israel has exchanged Yahweh for other gods. Although even the most depraved nations (Cyprus, Kedar) have not done such a thing with their false gods (2:10–11), Israel has forsaken the true God in exchange for Baal, Asherah, and others. Israel’s betrayal of Yahweh makes as much sense as a person refusing to drink from a spring of fresh, cool water (representing Yahweh) and preferring instead the muck at the bottom of a leaky cistern (representing the false gods; 2:13).
2:14–19 Third, Yahweh charges Israel with political idolatry. In their fear of conquest, the rulers have sought protection from Egypt and Assyria, with their apparently invincible armies, instead of seeking protection from Yahweh (2:18; cf. 1Sam 17:45; Ps 20:7; Isa 31:1). The result will be capture, humiliation, and bondage (Jer 2:15–16, 19).
2:20–28 Fourth, Yahweh exposes their hideous worship practices. Although worship should have been reserved for their husband Yahweh alone, they prostituted themselves to other gods by worshiping them on every high hill (2:20; cf. 2Kgs 17:10; Hos 4:13). In fact, they are worse than whores, who derive pay from their clients. Israel is more like a frenzied animal in heat, chasing after anyone that will have her, free of charge (Jer 2:23–25; cf. 3:2).
2:29–30 Fifth, the people are utterly opposed to change. They refuse to accept correction and even kill the prophets whom Yahweh sends to rebuke them.
2:31–37 The final paragraph of the lawsuit summarizes the case: Israel has treated Yahweh as though he were a despicable husband (2:31–32) and has become a hardened, expert prostitute, heinous to the uttermost (2:33). To our astonishment, Israel pleads “innocent” to all of these charges (2:35)! She claims she is “clean” and deserving of Yahweh’s husbandly protection (2:23, 27), even while she stubbornly cleaves to her paramours (2:25, 27–28). Thus, Yahweh decrees her judgment (2:36–37).
3:1–5 Legally, does Israel have any future recourse? Is there any hope for her future? To answer this question, Jeremiah 3:1–5 appeals to the divorce law in Deuteronomy 24:1–4. Although the people think that Yahweh’s anger will quickly cool and that he will have them back (3:4–5), their situation is much more dire. Deuteronomy 24 forbids a husband to take back his wife when he has divorced her and she has been joined to another. By analogy, Yahweh may not take back Israel (Jer 3:1–2). In the lawsuit in chapter 2, Yahweh has divorced his people (a point also made in 3:8), so to take her back would be to nullify his own Law.
Israel’s spiritual adultery points to the vast dilemma of all our sin. First, sin creates legal demands: justice demands that our sin be judged, and there is no exception. Second, sin ensnares our souls in bondage: not only are we powerless to resist our frantic lust for our idols, but sin also blinds us to its own existence. How could we ever repent when we are not even willing (or able) to admit our problem?
God’s Promise to Heal Their Faithlessness (3:6–4:4)
3:6–11 As hopeless as Israel’s (and our) situation seems, 3:6–4:4 introduces us to the astounding hope that Yahweh offers in the book of Jeremiah. But first, Yahweh intensifies Judah’s true dilemma: far from being superior to the northern kingdom (as they no doubt considered themselves to be), they are actually worse! For Judah had the benefit of seeing what Yahweh did to the northern kingdom when the northern kingdom went apostate: he divorced them and sent them away (3:8). Judah’s sin is more heinous than Israel’s because they rushed forward into their adultery despite this warning (3:8–9). When Judah was confronted, they only pretended to repent (3:10). Judah now faces the same fate of divorce as Israel did (3:11).
3:12–13 Notwithstanding this impasse, Yahweh now moves to show the hope he offers to both Israel and Judah, a hope that answers both the demands of justice and the people’s inability to repent. Yahweh orders Jeremiah to turn to the north and call the northern kingdom to return. Though they have been faithless and gone into exile, Yahweh promises that they need only acknowledge their guilt and he will not retain his anger forever.
3:14–4:2 Judah must surely wonder, What about us? Will we receive the same offer? The following verses now answer in the affirmative. To properly interpret 3:14–4:2, we must realize that the timeframe has suddenly changed: while 3:12–13 assumed that the northern kingdom was exiled but the southern kingdom remained, now Yahweh begins speaking of a return to Zion (3:14) and of both Israel and Judah returning from the north after the ark has been lost (3:16, 18). The timeframe for 3:14–4:2, therefore, is after Judah also has been exiled (or “divorced”) by Yahweh. This section, therefore, is “predicted preaching,” words that Judah will hear after they have been exiled.
Yahweh proclaims a glorious collage of promises to the exiles. He will bring them back to Zion, reuniting northern and southern kingdoms (3:14, 18). He will give them good shepherds (i.e., leaders and teachers) who will feed them with truth (3:15). He will make the people numerous again (3:16) and will even cause the nations to be joined to them as true followers of Yahweh (3:17). Another new development is the obsolescence of the ark, since now the whole city will be Yahweh’s throne (3:16).
But how will these things ever happen, since Yahweh’s past intentions for joy and intimacy with his people were ruthlessly thwarted by sin (3:19–20)? Jeremiah 3:22 gives the key, using a profound wordplay on the Hebrew root meaning “to turn” (šûb). Here I provide a translation of the first half of this verse in order to bring out the wordplay: “Turn (šûb), O sons who ever turn aside (šôbāb); I will heal your inability to turn back to me (məšûbâ).” Yahweh will do a new and powerful act to heal the adulterous, blind, and willful hearts of his people. He will give them the grace of repentance, a hope that lies at the heart of the new covenant (31:33–34; cf. 24:7).
The rest of Jeremiah 3 dramatizes this future gift of repentance. Rather than defying Yahweh and insisting on their innocence (cf. ch. 2), the exiles weep for their sin (3:21) and decry the emptiness of their past indulgences (3:23–25)! They turn from their idols back to Yahweh: “Behold, we come to you, for you are the Lord our God” (3:22), and Yahweh encourages the exiles with all the blessings that will flow from their repentance (4:1–2).
4:3–4 The final two verses return to Jeremiah’s present (the days of Josiah; cf. 3:6). Yahweh demands that the people circumcise their hearts and make a new beginning, or they will certainly face his wrath. In light of 2:1–4:2, we now realize that the people will never be able to circumcise their own hearts; repentance is only possible if Yahweh first intervenes to change us (3:22), something he will do only after judgment has come (for the fulfillment in Christ through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, see Acts 3:26; Rom 2:28–29). Thus, before the book returns to the joyful promises of restoration, Jeremiah will demonstrate more thoroughly that Judah is unable to repent, and therefore judgment is inevitable.
What about the legal dilemma of Yahweh not being able to receive back his bride after she has been divorced and joined to other gods (Deut 24:1–4; Jer 3:1–5)? The rest of the canon provides an amazing answer: Yahweh the bridegroom comes to die in place of the bride. In union with his death, his bride also dies with him and is raised with him (Rom 7:1–4). Thus, the death and resurrection of Jesus makes for a new beginning for both the bridegroom and the bride. They are now free to marry afresh, for the harlot has died and been raised a spotless virgin, clean and pure (2Cor 11:2; Eph 5:27). What amazing grace, that the church is now engaged to Christ, awaiting our glorious wedding day (Eph 1:14; Rev 19:9; 21:2)!
The Plucking Up and Tearing Down of Judah (4:5–24:10)
This section is the darkest in the book, with protracted cycles detailing Israel’s sin and angst, and Yahweh’s wrath and judgment. These protracted cycles are divided below into three series. The long, constant press of fierce condemnation gives us a sense of what it would have been like to be a prophet whose ministry involved decades of such words. Not surprisingly, Jeremiah endures a crisis of faith. His lamentation and perplexity in Series 1 (4:5–9:26) give way to protest in Series 2 (10:1–13:27), and finally to a bitter renunciation of his call in Series 3 (14:1–20:18). The attitude of the prophet toward his God is manifested in a series of “confessions,” personal dialogues with Yahweh that emerge in 4:5–20:18 (especially in chs. 11–20).
Running alongside the narrative of the prophet’s struggle is a series of oracles that show the development of his message. Jeremiah gives dramatic pictures of Judah’s impending doom (Series 1), followed by a clear demonstration of their guilt (Series 2), and finally the conclusion that judgment is inevitable: no amount of intercession or repentance can avert God’s judgment (Series 3).
As hopeless as both the prophet’s unraveling and the nation’s conviction seem, the final section points a way forward (21:1–24:10). Jeremiah emerges as a preacher of hope, but a hope that is only to be found through judgment, on the other side of exile.
Series 1: Judah’s Demise and Jeremiah’s Lament (4:5–9:26)
Series 1 falls into three sections: 4:5–6:30, which gives a sequence of dramatic snapshots of the coming disaster; 7:1–8:3, in which Jeremiah preaches in the temple against the people’s hypocrisy; and 8:4–9:26, in which Yahweh demonstrates that true wisdom is when Israel boasts not in themselves, but in him alone. Each section develops a particular dimension of the “plucking up and tearing down” theme.
4:5–6:30 The first big section, 4:5–6:30, feels like a disorderly swirl of cries and images. However, one can find order and logic in the text by paying attention to the narrative flow. If all the cities are in ruins in the aftermath of judgment (e.g., 4:26), and then we hear about the enemy approaching and people taking flight (e.g., 4:29)—something that obviously took place prior to the destruction—then we know that the narrative has reset back to the beginning and we are hearing a new sequence. We discern six dramatic sequences in 4:5–6:26, followed by a concluding image taken from metallurgy (6:27–30). The first three dramatic sequences focus on what it is like to experience judgment (4:1–31). The latter three sequences emphasize the sin that causes Judah to deserve this judgment (5:1–6:26).
4:5–10 In the first dramatic sequence, we are immediately thrust into a picture of widespread panic. Disaster is on its way from the north (4:6, words that recall the boiling pot in 1:14), and people must flee the countryside for the safety of the cities (4:5–6). The enemy army has left his den like a destroying lion, a picture that recalls Yahweh himself and his previous judgments (Isa 26:21; Hos 5:14; Mic 1:3). The people lament (Jer 4:8), the once cocksure leaders are astounded (4:9), and Jeremiah himself is perplexed: why has Yahweh deceived the people by saying all will be well, when he was actually intending to destroy them (4:10)? Jeremiah’s question assumes that he has been listening to the false prophets proclaim peace as though they were actual prophets of Yahweh (cf. 14:13). He will soon learn to combat their lies.
4:11–28 The second dramatic sequence vividly portrays the anguish of Judah and the destructive power of Yahweh. With disaster looming (4:11–13), Yahweh adjures Jerusalem to wash their heart from evil (4:14), but, as with his command to circumcise their heart in 4:4, we know that they will never do it. Still, their rejection of God’s final appeal for reconciliation puts the responsibility squarely on Judah—“Your ways and your deeds have brought this upon you” (4:18). In 4:19–21, we hear Lady Zion (a metaphor for Judah; we know it is a woman’s voice from the feminine Hebrew forms in 4:14–18). She shrieks in terror and her heart throbs wildly (4:19) as she loses everything (4:20). Jeremiah then looks on the earth after the conquest, and all is formless and void (4:23). The sequence in 4:23–26 echoes Genesis 1:1–2:3, but in reverse! Instead of God looking with satisfaction at the creation of light, birds, people, etc., Jeremiah looks and sees that all these things are lost. In a similar way, the final judgment will involve the dissolution of the old creation (2Pet 3:7, 10, 12), a de-creation that began first on the cross (cf. Matt 27:45, 51, 54).
4:29–31 In the third sequence, we see another aspect of Lady Zion’s response to judgment. As the nations gather, Lady Zion beautifies herself in order to seduce them (probably a metaphor for international alliances with nations whom she hopes will defend her). The picture reminds us of Jezebel attempting to avoid death by seducing Jehu (2Kgs 9:30–37). But, like with Jezebel, it ends in death for Lady Zion. The image suddenly shifts in Jeremiah 4:31 to Lady Zion as a woman in labor, a picture of sudden pain and crisis that reemerges in the NT to describe the last days (1Thes 5:3). At the cross, Yahweh himself endures the labor pains of the final judgment on our behalf (Acts 2:24; cf. Isa 42:13–14).
5:1–19 Having alarmed his audience with dramatic pictures of Judah’s end, the next three sequences show why this crisis must come. In the fourth sequence (Jer 5:1–19), God commissions Jeremiah to find just one righteous person, which reminds us of Abraham’s intercession in Genesis 18:16–33. But after searching among both the poor and the nobility, Jeremiah finds that all are rebels against Yahweh (5:1–5). Nothing remains, therefore, except judgment (5:6–19). How could God do anything else (5:6, 9)? Even though God gave them everything, they still lust for sin (5:8; cf. Deut 31:20). Judah has become like any other nation (Jer 5:9), and thus they will suffer the fate of other nations (5:10).
But the people of Judah are still not convinced that Yahweh would ever do such a thing: “He (i.e., Yahweh) will do nothing; no disaster will come upon us, nor shall we see sword or famine” (5:12). But these audacious claims are one reason why Yahweh will judge them! He will make Jeremiah’s words like fire that will devour the people (5:14), a destruction that is enacted by a devouring nation whose military might is unstoppable (5:15–17; cf. Deut 28:31, 49, 51–52). Amazingly, even as Jeremiah emphasizes Yahweh’s justice, Yahweh’s grace keeps shining through: a remnant of Judah will remain after the judgment (Jer 4:27; 5:10, 18).
5:20–6:15 The fifth sequence emphasizes Judah’s inability to listen to reproof. Yahweh ironically calls his people to listen, even though they cannot hear (5:21). He confronts them because they do not fear him, even though he is Lord of the waves and the rain (5:22–24). Instead, they have indulged in oppression and fraud and false prophecy, assuming that no one sees them (5:26–28, 31). But Yahweh does see, and he will take action (5:29).
The next paragraph envisions what that action will be (6:1–7; in 6:8 we realize that this vision is a warning of what is about to come). Again, the picture is of an invading army (the “shepherds” in 6:3 are commanders; the “flocks” are soldiers). The army is so dedicated that they conduct their assault in the heat of day and in the dead of night (6:4–5). Astonishingly, Yahweh himself appears as the general giving orders at the head of the army (6:6). He is moved to judge, for Judah’s evil is great, and she keeps it ever fresh (6:7).
With such a disaster on the horizon, Jeremiah now wonders to himself whom he could warn who would actually listen to him (6:10). The answer is: no one, since they all are constitutionally incapable of listening. Their ears are uncircumcised. But Yahweh does not want him to hold back the words of wrath; rather, Jeremiah is to pour them out on everyone, young and old (6:11). Just as the Israelites enjoyed the possessions that the Canaanites prepared (Deut 6:11), now Judah will have their wealth and wives turned over to their invaders (Jer 6:12; cf. Deut 28:30). Such is the punishment due to those who know no shame for their sin (Jer 6:13–15).
6:16–26 The last dramatic sequence seals the portrayal of Judah as an utterly willful and rebellious people. When told to look for the ancient paths (i.e., the Torah) and find rest for their souls (cf. Matt 11:28–30!), the people say, “We will not walk in [these paths]” (Jer 6:16). When told to pay attention to the trumpet, the people say, “We will not pay attention” (6:17). At this point, Yahweh ceases to address his people and instead speaks to the nations, explaining that no amount of sacrifice on Judah’s part will prevent him from bringing disaster on his people (6:18–21). An awesome nation bristling with weapons is on its way against Judah, and Judah will find no mercy, either from the nation or from Yahweh himself (6:22–26).
6:27–30 What have all these dramatic sequences proven? At least one thing is that Judah is beyond repentance. Just as no amount of heat can refine the dross out of junk metal, so no amount of shocking warnings, forthright confrontations, or urgent pleas will ever move Judah to change (6:29–30). The same is true for everyone today: “All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom 3:12). No amount of education or therapy can change our sin-enslaved hearts; only the mighty savior, Jesus Christ.
7:1–8:3 The next big unit is Jeremiah’s temple sermon (7:1–8:3). This sample of the prophet’s preaching confronts two major issues: the people’s hypocrisy and their misplaced hope in the temple. The people believe that they have a special relationship with Yahweh, and that this relationship guarantees their immunity from judgment no matter how badly they sin. “The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord,” is their empty mantra (7:4)—the temple “proves” their invulnerability. As long as they believe this, they will never repent or accept that Yahweh is about to judge them.
7:1–20 It is thus quite fitting that Jeremiah confronts those entering the temple of Yahweh for worship (7:2). These are people who would pride themselves on being “good Yahwists.” But Jeremiah confronts these people on their desperate need to amend their ways (7:3, 5). They are living a double life. On the one hand, they are breaking all ten of the Ten Commandments (7:9), including horrific sins like idol worship (7:6) and child sacrifice (7:31). Then, after all this defiance, they think they can walk into the house of Yahweh and say, “We are delivered!” (7:10), with every intent of continuing their sin. Their false hopes are built on the faulty reasoning that the temple (and therefore Jerusalem) is inviolable. God has permanently aligned himself with David (2Sam 7:13–16) and Aaron (Num 25:12–13); he even miraculously delivered Jerusalem in the days of Hezekiah (2Kgs 19:35–37). Does this not mean that “the place called by his name” (Jer 7:11–12; cf. Deut 12:11; 1Kgs 8:16) is invulnerable?
The answer is no; the temple will not be a hideout for unrepentant sinners or “a den of robbers.” As a counterexample, Yahweh cites his previous sanctuary at Shiloh (Jer 7:14). When Eli’s house lived in similarly flagrant sin (1Sam 2:12–17, 22), Yahweh judged his sanctuary and allowed even the ark to be captured (1Sam 4:1–11; Ps 78:60). Nothing prevents him from doing the same again to Jerusalem (Jer 7:15).
Indeed, it is no longer a matter of if Yahweh will judge Jerusalem, but when. The conditional message of “if you amend your ways and your deeds . . . then I will let you dwell in this place” (7:5–7) becomes a certain matter: “because you have done all these things [and] did not listen . . . therefore I will cast you out of my sight” (7:13–15). Judah’s chance for rectifying their relationship with Yahweh is gone, and now Yahweh forbids Jeremiah to pray for the people anymore (7:16). Unlike the golden calf incident, where Moses’s intercession prevented the people’s demise (Exod 32), Yahweh will judge the whole-hearted, organized sin that Judean families practice in their reverence for the “Queen of Heaven” (probably a goddess of fertility; 7:17–20).
7:21–8:3 The second half of the temple sermon dismantles another false hope: even when the people sin, can they not simply offer the necessary sacrifices and thereby obtain forgiveness? No—just as the temple was never meant to give an excuse for sin, so also the sacrificial system was never intended to serve as a covering for flagrant rebellion. God desires obedience and not sacrifice (7:22–23; cf. Deut 5:33; Hos 6:6). God’s denial that he spoke to their fathers about sacrifices (Jer 7:22) is not a repudiation of Leviticus (this verse probably means he did not speak only to them about sacrifices; cf. Exod 6:3, which also omits an assumed “only”); rather, the sacrifices were intended to restore fellowship between Yahweh and repentant sinners. Since Judah does not repent, her sacrifices avail nothing (Jer 11:15). She is actually moving away from Yahweh, not toward him (7:24–26).
The consequences of this unrepentance are the worst imaginable (7:30–8:3). The worst kind of dishonor was to remain unburied (hence the high value placed on proper burial: Gen 50:25; 1Sam 31:12–13; 2Sam 21:10). But the present generation will be slaughtered and become food for the birds and beasts (Jer 7:32–33), a fulfillment of Deuteronomy 28:26. Even past generations will be exhumed and left as dung on the ground (Jer 8:1–2; cf. 2Kgs 9:37; Ps 83:10), and future generations will wish they were dead, so great will be their shame (Jer 8:3).
As awful as this judgment is, it is also entirely just. These are the people who have been sacrificing their children (both to Yahweh and to Molech, a sacrifice Yahweh never required; 7:31; Deut 12:31). These are the people who have utterly closed their ears to reproof or any kind of truth (Jer 7:27–28). These are the people who have offered all their worship and affection and energy to false astral deities instead of to Yahweh (8:2; cf. Deut 4:19). It is only just that those who sacrificed the fruit of marriage (children) should cease to enjoy marriage (Jer 7:34), and that those who worshiped the gods of the skies should have their bones spread out to rot before the host of heaven (8:2).
Judah is profoundly self-deceived: they believe they are faithful servants of Yahweh, while their lives deeply anger him. Jesus encountered the same hypocrisy: the Jews of his time trusted in the outward show of religion and the temple, while actually making the temple a robber’s den (Matt 6:2, 5, 16; 21:13; 23:23). The church today battles the same tendency toward smug self-assurance and a manipulative approach to God (“I pray every day and go to church, so he has to do what I want”). Jeremiah exposes how outward piety can coexist with deep opposition to Yahweh.
8:4–9:26 The first two sections of Series 1 have expounded the horror of the coming judgment (4:5–6:30) and the hypocrisy of Judah (7:1–8:3). In the third section (8:4–9:26), we encounter the folly of Judah and Jeremiah’s lament for her wickedness.
8:4–13 The words “wise” and “wisdom” are key to understanding this section. In 8:4–13, we see that the people boast in being wise (8:8). But when they fall down in sin, they do not pick themselves up again in repentance (8:4). No one examines themselves (8:6, 12). They think their problems are light (8:11), and they refuse to return (8:5). Even the birds know better (8:7; cf. Isa 1:3)! Most decisively, they have rejected the very fount of God’s wisdom, his Word (Jer 8:8). As a result, they have no good fruit for Yahweh (8:13; cf. Matt 21:19–22!).
8:14–9:11 Just as the rejection of wisdom leads to the death of individual fools in the book of Proverbs (Prov 8:36; 15:10), now we see how death appears on a national scale in Jeremiah 8:14–9:11. Too late, the people realize their doom (8:14–15). As in the wilderness wanderings, they must drink poisoned waters (8:14; cf. Exod 32:20), and poisonous serpents will bite them (Jer 8:17; cf. Num 21:6). But this time Yahweh has forbidden their prophet to pray; there will be no cure (contrast Num 21:7–8).
All Jeremiah can do is to lament, asking on the people’s behalf why Yahweh their king does not intervene (Jer 8:18–19d). Yahweh’s reply is to ask his own question: Why did they provoke him with idols, while he, their king, was in Zion (8:19e–f)?
Now the people realize that their hope of deliverance is past (8:20). They who gave Yahweh no harvest of righteousness (8:13) will receive no harvest of food from the land. Jeremiah feels their pain so poignantly that he says he has been wounded himself (8:21). He is so angered that Yahweh, Israel’s physician (cf. Exod 15:26; Ps 103:3), will not act on the people’s behalf that he wishes for an infinite supply of tears so he could adequately express his grief (Jer 8:22–9:1).
Yahweh, in contrast, wishes only to leave his people (9:2). He abhors their treachery and falsehood (9:2–3). Far from being wise, they refuse to know him, and falsehood pervades every relationship in their society (9:4–6, 8). Was there anything more Yahweh could have done for them? Having attempted to refine their sin (9:7), and that refinement having failed (6:29–30), all that is left is his holy justice (9:9). Jeremiah now laments once again for the devastation of the land (9:10), and Yahweh replies by insisting on full destruction: as the pastures have been laid waste, so also the cities must fall (9:11).
9:12–26 Yahweh has shown Judah to be devoid of wisdom (8:4–13), and even Jeremiah has struggled to accept Yahweh’s justice (8:14–9:11). Now Yahweh shows what true wisdom—if Judah had any—would do in this great catastrophe. First, true wisdom would accept that Yahweh is acting justly, just as his Law said he would do (9:12–16 is filled with echoes back to Deuteronomy; see Deut 4:8; 28:21; 29:18–19). Second, true wisdom would join with the “wise” (or “skilled”) lamenting women in grieving Jerusalem’s fall as a step toward accepting God’s justice (Jer 9:17–22). And finally, true wisdom would repent. Instead of boasting in their wisdom, might, and riches, they would boast in Yahweh (9:23–24). Knowing him means delighting in what he delights in: steadfast love, justice, and righteousness. But to repent truly, Judah must acknowledge that they are no different from the surrounding nations; they are all uncircumcised of heart (9:25–26; cf. 4:4) and worthy of Yahweh’s judgment.
The wisest thing the church can do is to acknowledge our self-deceived hearts, to mourn for our sin (and not just the consequences of sin, cf. Matt 5:4; John 16:20; 2Cor 7:9–10; Jas 4:9–10), and to renounce our empty boasts (1Cor 1:20–29). This is what it means to be “wise for salvation” (2Tim 3:15). As the pastor Ichabod Spencer once wrote, “To cut off the sinner from all reliance upon himself, his merits, and his powers, and throw him naked and helpless into the hands of the Holy Spirit to lead him to Christ in faith, should be the one great aim of the ministry.”7 We must forsake our empty boasts and boast instead in the saving power of Jesus Christ: “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1Cor 1:31).
Series 2: Judah’s Condemnation and Jeremiah’s Protest of God’s Ways (10:1–13:27)
In the second series of oracles pertaining to Judah’s judgment, the book focuses on Judah’s worthiness for judgment and Jeremiah’s increasing objection to Yahweh’s plan. To highlight the intensifying rift between Yahweh and his prophet, the text begins to alternate between Jeremiah announcing Judah’s doom on Yahweh’s behalf and Jeremiah disputing with Yahweh.
10:1–16 Jeremiah starts by adjuring Judah to forsake the folly of idolatry. He flips between mocking idols (and their makers) for their weakness and praising Yahweh for his glory and power. The goal is to show the absurdity of worshiping anyone or anything except Yahweh, and to urge Judah not to “learn . . . the ways of the nations” (10:2). First, idols are mere created things. They are made with raw materials that a craftsman must shape (10:3–4, 8–9; cf. Deut 27:15; Isa 44:14). They are utterly powerless: they must be kept from tottering (Jer 10:4; cf. 1Sam 5:4), and they need to be carried around (Jer 10:5; cf. Ps 115:7; Isa 46:4). They are powerless to speak or to do any harm; hence there is nothing to fear from ignoring them (Jer 10:2, 5). Neither are they able to give any benefit; hence there is no reason to serve them (10:5).
In contrast, there is none like Yahweh, who alone is king of the nations and mighty to bring about both good and calamity (10:6–7, 10; cf. 18:5–10). In particular, Yahweh will bring calamity against the pretender gods who are no creators at all (10:11). The word against the gods in 10:11 is a surprising shift from Hebrew poetry to Aramaic prose (the only verse in Jeremiah in this language). Using Aramaic (the language of international discourse), Yahweh here provides his people with a taunt they should speak against the nations who believe that their gods (Marduk, Ea, etc.) made heaven and earth. In reality, these hand-made gods created nothing and will themselves perish.
Jeremiah now celebrates Yahweh as the true creator, who made all things with great power and insight (10:12). As such, he is sovereign over the immense power of weather, including the mighty “wind” (Hebrew rûaḥ; 10:13). The idols, in contrast, have no “breath” in them (same word, rûaḥ; 10:14). To worship them is to become like them: “stupid and without knowledge” (see 10:8). Far from an idol-manufacturer gaining honor from his enterprise, his labor only shames and debases him. Humans are powerless to create a true god, as powerless as the gods they worship (10:14–15). If only Judah and all lands would honor Yahweh, who formed all things and alone is worthy of praise (10:16)!
At the heart of this contrast is the creator-creature distinction: people do not “create” gods or the images of gods; instead, the true God creates his own living images (Gen 1:26–28; Jer 16:20). There is no greater folly than to ignore the creator-creature distinction and worship the creation or the works of our hands (Rom 1:21–25), yet our world is filled with the worship of money, sex, entertainment, and power. But the glory of Christ is his power to turn our hearts from empty idol worship to the pure and ennobling worship of the living God (Acts 14:15; 1Thes 1:9; Rev 15:3–4).
10:17–25 Judah, however, will have none of this. The next section (Jer 10:17–25) abruptly shifts from celebrating Yahweh as the “portion of Jacob” (10:16) to a vivid portrayal of Yahweh’s destruction of Jacob (10:17–18). Jeremiah commands Jerusalem to pick up her baggage, for her time to depart into exile has come (10:17–18). Yahweh himself is bringing this upon them; he is hurling them away like a detestable thing (10:18; cf. 16:13; 22:26).
In 10:19–21 we now hear Judah speak in the stylized image of Lady Zion (the second-person feminine singular forms in the Hebrew of 10:17 prepared us for a woman’s voice in 10:19). Lady Zion bemoans her disaster, which is far worse than she expected (10:19–20).
In 10:22 the narrative frame resets, and we are again taken back to the time when the enemy army emerges in the north, creating panic in Judah. But this time we hear a response from Jeremiah, who acknowledges God as the governor of his life story (10:23; cf. Prov 16:9) and pleads that God would spare him the full brunt of his anger (Jer 10:24). He also asks that Yahweh would swiftly intervene to judge the nations, who seem to Jeremiah to be far more worthy of judgment (10:25; cf. Ps 79:6–7; Hab 1–2).
11:1–17 The next section establishes the covenantal grounds for Yahweh’s judgment of Judah. It makes explicit that Yahweh is not simply punishing Judah for her grievous offenses; he is also acting faithfully according to the very words he spoke when he first made the covenant with Judah. In that covenant (enacted first at Sinai [Exod 19–Num 10], as well as in its renewal on the plains of Moab [Deut]), Yahweh promised blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience (Lev 26; Deut 27–28). The first paragraph of Jeremiah 11:1–5 reiterates these principles in words that recall Deuteronomy. Yahweh is Israel’s redeemer, who brought them out of the “iron furnace” (i.e., Egypt; cf. Deut 4:20). They must heed his voice if they are to live out their identity as his blessed people (Jer 11:4–5; cf. Exod 19:5; Deut 7:12–13). But if they disobey, then they are under the curse (Jer 11:3). Jeremiah’s response, “So be it, Lord” (11:5), is literally, “Amen, Lord,” an imitation of Israel’s response to the twelvefold curse in Deuteronomy 27:15–26. Yahweh has again set forth the principle that covenant disobedience leads to a curse, and Jeremiah has reconfirmed this truth.
Now Yahweh recalls how he has already been acting according to the covenant curses (Jer 11:6–8). Through the prophets, he had warned his people persistently that curses were coming (11:7; cf. 7:25). And when they refused and walked in the stubbornness of their evil hearts, he brought the curses on them (11:8). For example, in the days of Ahab, he brought drought and famine (1Kgs 17:1; cf. Deut 28:23–24), and he caused them many times to be defeated before their enemies (1Sam 4:3; 2Kgs 10:32–33; cf. Deut 28:25).
But Yahweh had not yet brought the climactic curse of the covenant on Judah, the curse of exile. The next two paragraphs (Jer 11:9–17) show that that awful day has finally come. As in earlier days, Judah continues to persist in their refusal to listen to Yahweh’s words (11:10; 13:10; the word “to hear/to listen” [šāmaʿ] appears 9x in 11:1–17). Both the northern kingdom and Judah have broken Yahweh’s covenant, and now is the time for covenant justice. The punishment certainly fits the crime: they will receive all the help their false gods can give—absolutely nothing (11:12–13; cf. 2:27–28; Judg 10:14). Since Judah did not listen to Yahweh’s commands, now Yahweh will not listen to their cries for help (Jer 11:11), not even when Jeremiah himself prays on their behalf (11:14; cf. 15:1).
Yahweh’s resolve to judge his people is the reason why he prohibits Jeremiah’s prayers. There will be no escape this time (11:11); patience and mercy have come to an end. The beloved but faithless wife (Judah) must be cast out; no sacrifice can avert destruction (11:15; cf. 7:21–26). The tree which Yahweh had planted and from which he had waited so long for produce has yielded no fruit and is good for nothing except the flames (11:16–17; cf. Ps 80:8–16; Jer 2:21; 8:13; Luke 13:6–9; Rom 11:17).
Although only Israel and Judah were under the Sinai covenant, the same inexorable logic applies to every human being. All flesh inherits the curse of Adam’s covenant (Rom 5:12–21) and deserves God’s wrath and curse, both for Adam’s sin and for our own. By punishing sin, Yahweh is not being faithless to the covenant as some in Judah probably thought (Jer 5:12, 19); rather, he is being faithful to his own Word. But in Jesus Christ we see how his grace triumphs even through his covenant justice, for Jesus became a curse for us on the cross, taking in himself the punishment we deserved (Gal 3:10–14).
11:18–12:17 In the next section, we see how Jeremiah’s preaching about the broken covenant provoked a hostile response from his own hometown of Anathoth. A conspiracy arises against Jeremiah (11:18–19) and leads to an interchange between the prophet and his God (11:20–12:17).
The conspiracy against Jeremiah (11:18–19; 12:6; cf. 18:18) gives him a poignant taste of what God himself has received at Judah’s hands. The people also have a conspiracy against God (11:9). In both cases, beloved members of their households (God’s: 11:15, and Jeremiah’s: 12:6) plot evil against them. The two conspiracies are essentially one and the same, for the people of Anathoth seek to silence Jeremiah from preaching God’s word (11:21).
God makes Jeremiah aware of this plot, who immediately prays for vengeance against his enemies (11:20). This is not necessarily a wicked prayer. Rather than defending his own innocence or taking vengeance into his own hands, Jeremiah commits his cause to God (cf. Ps 7:9; Jude 9; Rev 6:10). What is more, God answers Jeremiah’s prayer in the affirmative: the people of Anathoth will experience God’s holy justice (Jer 11:22–23).
Yet God’s answer does not satisfy Jeremiah. He wants God to enact justice now (12:1–4). His complaint asks, Why, if God is righteous, does he allow the wicked so much time to thrive and prosper (12:1; cf. Job 27:7–15; Ps 37; 73)? Why does God not act when he knows their hypocrisy (Jer 12:2)? Why does he let the land, the creatures, and innocent men like Jeremiah languish while the wicked carry on, defying God’s justice (12:3–4; cf. 5:12)?
Yahweh’s reply is sobering (12:5–6). Jeremiah has only begun to endure the hardship of Yahweh’s delay of judgment. Jeremiah’s growing weary now is like a runner growing weary at the beginning of a race, when he will later be called upon to race still faster (12:5). As we will see in chapters 37–44, Jeremiah will continue to be wronged by his own people, even beyond the fall of Jerusalem. And in some cases, he never saw God’s justice enacted in his lifetime.
In 12:7–13, Yahweh calls Jeremiah to step back and consider a bigger horizon. If Jeremiah thinks his situation is bad, then he needs to consider how bad things have become for Yahweh’s relationship with Judah. Like Jeremiah, Yahweh has been wronged by his closest relation: Yahweh’s own wife (Judah) has lifted up her voice against him like a roaring lion (12:8). Yahweh’s affection, once so deep for Judah (cf. “beloved of my soul” in 12:7), has now turned to loathing (cf. “therefore I hate her” in 12:8). And even when Yahweh abandoned his beloved to her enemies, even when his pleasant vineyard has become a wilderness, she still does not repent (12:11).
If anything, Yahweh’s answer intensifies the problem of injustice that Jeremiah raised at the beginning of chapter 12. The problem is far greater than Jeremiah’s own family and hometown betraying him. Yahweh’s own people have betrayed him. This rampant sin makes Yahweh’s gracious solution all the more astonishing: yes, Yahweh will eventually judge the nations who have harmed Judah (12:14; cf. chs. 46–51); but while Jeremiah seeks only vengeance, Yahweh wills that grace and compassion will triumph in the end, not just for Judah but also for the nations (12:15). Rather than the nations corrupting Judah, the nations will also learn Yahweh’s ways (12:16; cf. 3:17; 16:19). The climax of this grace to the nations is found in the gospel of Jesus, who became the savior not only of the Jews, but of the gentiles also (Eph 2:13; 3:6).
13:1–27 Jeremiah 13 develops the fury and grief of Yahweh concerning the pride of his beloved people. A sign-act about the linen loincloth (13:1–11) is followed by a sign-act about jars of wine (13:12–14). (Sign-acts are special actions that prophets perform to illustrate their message.) After Jeremiah’s solemn exhortation to forsake pride (13:15–17), Yahweh expresses his anguish at needing to judge his relentlessly proud and adulterous people (13:18–27).
The loincloth illustrates Yahweh’s disappointment with his people. He had intended them for beauty and for glory (13:11; cf. Exod 19:5; 28:2), but instead of clinging to Yahweh, they buried themselves in foreign idolatry (Jer 13:10; note the repeated reference to the Euphrates, a key foreign river). Thus, they became ruined, worthless for any good deed (13:7, 10; cf. Titus 1:16).
The jars of wine (Jer 13:12–14) illustrate God’s merciless wrath, the consequence of the people’s failure to be good loincloths. In the new metaphor, the people are the jars, and the wine is God’s wrath. This picture anticipates the great sign-act in chapter 25, where Jeremiah will require every nation to drink the cup of God’s wrath. In the end, the pots themselves will be destroyed as a sign of the people’s coming destruction (which also anticipates another sign-act, the destruction of the pottery in 19:10–11).
Jeremiah then pleads with Judah to repent of their pride (13:15–17). The exhortation to “Give glory to the Lord” (13:16) recalls Joshua’s attempt to elicit a confession from Achan when he was clearly condemned (Josh 7:19). But so great is the grip of the people’s pride that Jeremiah says he will weep in secret for their refusal to listen (Jer 13:17).
The final unit is a study in tragedy (13:18–27). In so many ways, pride takes what should be beautiful and makes it disgusting and shameful. The king was supposed to be a picture of the people’s splendor, as Solomon so vividly achieved. But as a result of the people’s unrepentance, the king and his mother (probably Jehoiachin and his mother Nehushta; cf. 29:2) will lose their crowns and their thrones (13:18).
In 13:20–27, Yahweh now addresses Jerusalem as Lady Zion, his faithless bride (cf. 2:1–3:10). Because of her perverse adultery with foreign gods, Yahweh orders her to be publicly exposed (stripped naked) and shamed (13:22, 26). Such humiliation is an awful and ironic consequence for one so proud. This horrific punishment is only just if the crime is so heinous that it deserves such a fate. We see a window into Judah’s hardness with her surprise at how her former “friends” / “lovers” (i.e., foreign political allies like Babylon; cf. 2Kgs 20:12–18) have become her enemies (Jer 13:21). She is also perplexed about why she is being punished (13:22). Pride has so blinded Judah to her sin that there is no possibility of her repentance; sin is as much a part of her nature as the color of her skin (13:23).
Judah is unmoved at her sin, but Yahweh is not. The final paragraph brings his angst to a fever pitch. Especially in 13:26–27 we see his deep anguish at the lewd sin of his people and his need to punish them with his own hand (cf. Ezek 18:23). The humiliation that Yahweh brings on Judah reminds us of Jesus’s own exposure as he hung naked on the cross. “Ye who think of sin but lightly / Nor suppose the evil great / Here may view its nature rightly / Here its guilt may estimate” (from the hymn “Stricken, Smitten and Afflicted” by Thomas Kelly).
Series 3: Judah’s Irreversible Judgment and Jeremiah’s Unraveling (14:1–20:18)
As dark as Series 2 was, Series 3 will be still darker, as the book continues to expound the plucking up and tearing down of Judah. Chapter 14 begins with Jeremiah still attempting to function as a prophet. By the end of chapter 20, however, he will have renounced Yahweh and his prophetic office. The degeneration of the prophet coincides with the sealing of Judah’s doom. Exile was previously a reversible fate if Judah had repented in time, but now it becomes a certain event as it is revealed that Judah cannot repent.
14:1–15:9 Jeremiah 14:1–15:9 presents Jeremiah’s failure as an intercessor. In times past, when God had sent a curse upon his people for their sin, a prophet would pray on behalf of the people for the curse to be reversed. Elijah did this during the drought in King Ahab’s day (1Kgs 17:1; 18:41–45). Now another drought occurs, and matters have become desperate (Jer 14:1–6). Jeremiah therefore leads the people in a prayer of repentance, confessing their sins and praying for Yahweh not to forsake them (14:7–9). Yahweh does not grant the request. Instead, he says that “now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins” (14:10). More ominously, Yahweh then shuts down any further intercession: no matter how much they fast or sacrifice or pray, he will not hear them (14:11–12).
Because no dates are assigned to this text or others where Yahweh forbids intercession (e.g., 7:16), it is impossible to know if Yahweh had already banned intercession and therefore Jeremiah was breaking this ban with his prayer in 14:7–9. What we do know is that Jeremiah is gravely displeased with Yahweh’s prohibition on prayer, and he begins to dispute with Yahweh about it. First, Jeremiah objects that Yahweh’s resolve to judge goes directly against what the prophets have been preaching to the people (14:13). It seems that to this point Jeremiah had been treating the “peace” prophets as genuine prophets of Yahweh (cf. Jer 4:10; 6:14). Yahweh’s reply is that he never sent those prophets (contrast God’s sending of Jeremiah in 1:7), and that both prophets and people will fall by sword and famine (14:14–18).
Jeremiah then continues his dispute in 14:19–22. Can anyone bring rain besides Yahweh (14:22)? What else would he have them do, since they have acknowledged their sin (14:20)? Has he come to loathe or reject his people (14:19)? Would not such a rejection bring great dishonor to his name, since it would mean he has broken his covenant (14:21)?
These are powerful arguments, especially given previous intercessions that persuaded Yahweh using the same logic (e.g., Num 14:13–19). However, a reflection on the rest of the book of Jeremiah yields ready answers to these questions. It is true that no one else can bring rain besides Yahweh (Jer 5:24; 10:13). But there really is nothing they can do; their repentance is too late (15:1, 4). Yahweh does now loathe and reject his people (6:30; 7:29; 12:8), and his rejection of Judah actually brings him honor because it is profoundly consistent with his covenant, which they have broken, not Yahweh (11:1–17).
Hence, we are not surprised when Yahweh replies that even if the great intercessors (Moses and Samuel) stood before him, yet he would not return to his people (15:1). The following lines are among the most chilling in the book. In a mock reversal of his previous word to Pharaoh when Israel was still in Egypt, Yahweh now says, “Send them out of my sight, and let them go!” (15:1; cf. Exod 5:1). This time, the people are not going out of bondage into the promised land, but from the promised land into death and exile (Jer 15:2). Yahweh thus proclaims a “reversed exodus” and a dismantling of his previous work of salvation. The curses of the covenant will now come in all their horror (note the tight parallels between 15:3–4 and Lev 26:16, 22, 25; Deut 28:25–26).
As 2 Kings made clear, King Manasseh’s horrific sin was the great turning point where Judah’s doom was sealed (2Kgs 21:11–15; 23:26; 24:3; cf. Jer 15:4). After Manasseh, Josiah’s genuine repentance only delayed the inevitable judgment (2Kgs 22:19–20); it could not reverse it altogether (2Kgs 23:25–26). A second turning point seems to have taken place in Jehoiakim’s reign when he burned the scroll (Jer 36:23, 30–31), which further provoked Yahweh’s wrath. Now there will be no more delays. Yahweh is weary of relenting for a people who will not repent no matter how much he disciplines them (15:6–7).
15:10–21 Jeremiah 15:10–21 continues the dialogue in 14:1–15:9, only now the tone and the purpose of the text have shifted. Jeremiah acknowledges defeat; he gives up on persuading Yahweh to relent from judgment. Instead, Jeremiah complains about the unceasing pain and grief of his ministry, and he is met with Yahweh’s stern encouragement.
First, Jeremiah complains that all people curse him, though he has done them no wrong (15:10). Yahweh replies that Jeremiah has still found favor before the enemy (i.e., Babylon; 15:11; cf. 40:1–5), and Yahweh’s question about iron and bronze in 15:12 should call to mind his promise to Jeremiah in 1:18: “behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land.” Though the people oppose Jeremiah, Yahweh has made him as unbreakable as iron and bronze.
Jeremiah still has no peace, however. In 15:13–14 we hear a synopsis of Jeremiah’s judgment message: the people will lose all and endure exile for their sins; Yahweh’s anger will burn indefinitely. Then Jeremiah lets loose his strongest accusation yet against Yahweh. Jeremiah claims that he has faithfully received and ministered this message (15:16), even though it led to his isolation from everyone (15:17; cf. 15:10; 16:5, 8). But this recent development (Yahweh’s refusal to relent) is too much: now Jeremiah’s pain has become unceasing (15:18). If Jeremiah bears Judah’s wound (8:21; that is, if he himself receives the punishment of exile that the people deserve, though he does not deserve it), and if Judah will never be healed from their wound (as 14:1–15:9 has just made clear), then Jeremiah himself expects never to be healed. Has Yahweh become “a deceitful brook, like waters that fail” (15:18)?
Yahweh’s reply is to launch his own confrontation (15:19–21). Yahweh does not need to justify himself to his prophet (Isa 45:9; Dan 4:35), and his prophet has no business accusing him of deceit. If Jeremiah repents, then Yahweh promises to reinstate him as his prophet, with the same promise of invincibility as before (Jer 15:19–20; cf. 1:18). But there must be no compromise with the people: the people must turn back to Yahweh; Jeremiah must not defect to them (15:19).
Jeremiah’s dispute with Yahweh about his incurable wound points forward to Jesus’s plea in Gethsemane that the Father let his cup pass (Matt 26:39). In both cases, the one who pleads is required to bear his awful load. Neither deserved their sufferings, and Jeremiah’s sorrows, however imperfectly borne, picture the necessity that the Christ must suffer. Indeed, Jeremiah is a first fulfillment of the suffering servant, who was like a lamb led to the slaughter (11:19; cf. Isa 53:7) and cut off from the land of the living (Jer 11:19; cf. Isa 53:8). Jeremiah was wounded for his people (Jer 8:21; 15:18; cf. Isa 53:5), and his grave was made with the wicked in Egypt (Jer 43:6; cf. Isa 53:9). He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Jer 15:10; cf. Isa 53:3), despised and rejected by men, even by his own hometown (Jer 11:21; 12:6; cf. Isa 53:3; Matt 13:57). Jeremiah prepares us for the last great prophet, Jesus, who suffers for his people (Matt 21:33–41; 23:29–36).
16:1–13 Jeremiah 16:1–13 unfolds other ways in which Jeremiah will bear the sorrows of Judah in his own person. Yahweh prohibits Jeremiah from doing three things. First, he is not permitted to have a wife or children. Jeremiah’s childlessness will picture the bereavement of the nation, whose children will die in the siege and remain unburied (16:3–4; cf. 9:21; 15:8). Second, Jeremiah is not permitted to enter a house of mourning (16:5). This prohibition might seem strange since Jeremiah does plenty of mourning in the book. But the point is that the catastrophe of the city’s fall will be so great a disruption that there will be no opportunity for the proper rites of mourning (16:6–8; cf. Ezek 24:16–23). No people will be left to console one another; all will go into exile. Third, Jeremiah cannot enter a house of feasting (Jer 16:8), for Yahweh will cause all joy to cease from the land, particularly the joy that accompanies weddings (16:9).
These antisocial practices will certainly awaken questions. When people understand that Jeremiah’s life of sorrow demonstrates that sorrow is coming to them, then Jeremiah will be able to explain that their sin is the cause (16:10–13). Jeremiah’s joyless life has become an embodiment of how sin is a dead end (Rom 6:23).
16:14–21 Having cut off marriages and children—the means of ensuring a nation’s future—we are astonished to hear that Yahweh nevertheless intends a future for Judah (16:14–21). This passage, one of the few hopeful texts in 4:5–24:10, anticipates a paradoxical theme in the book: only after Israel has been destroyed, exiled, and cut off from a future (16:11–13) can they have a future! Yahweh explains three dimensions of this unexpected future hope. First, Yahweh will carry out a new liberation that will outclass even the first exodus. Indeed, the defining event in Israel’s history will no longer be the exodus from Egypt, but this new exodus out of the north country (16:14–15). Second, Yahweh promises to raise up fishers who will fish them out from the ocean of the nations, wherever they may be hiding (16:16; cf. Deut 30:4 and an astonishing fulfillment in Mark 1:17!). Finally, even the nations will come to Yahweh, renouncing their profitless idols and honoring Yahweh as the true God (Jer 16:19–21; cf. 3:17; 12:16).
This new exodus, complete with the engrafting of the gentiles, is a major theme in Isaiah (e.g., Isa 43:14–21; 52:11–12). The gospel of Mark and the book of Acts identify the work of Jesus as the new exodus expected by the prophets (note Luke 9:31’s use of “departure” [Gk. exodos] for Jesus’s cross).8 The church of Jesus is comprised of former slaves from all the nations who now are liberated from the ultimate slavery to sin and death (Rom 6:22; Heb 2:15). No longer are we exiles from God’s presence (Gen 3:23); through Jesus we have now returned to God (Rom 5:2; Heb 12:22; 1Pet 2:25).
17:1–18:23 In Jeremiah 17–18, Yahweh circles closer to the climax of Judah’s uprooting. Here we see the utter brokenness and irrationality of sin: when given the choice between rich blessing under Yahweh’s authority and the certain curse that flows from sinful autonomy, Judah embraces the curse—anything to preserve their autonomy from Yahweh; anything except embracing him.
17:1–4 Yahweh speaks of sin’s ravages on the human heart. In 17:1 we hear that sin is engraved on the tablet of Judah’s heart “with a pen of iron, with a point of diamond.” Sin is not easily removed or erased. Even when the horrible consequences of sin are before them (17:2–4), they still choose sin.
17:5–8 The poem in 17:5–8 vividly illustrates the choice before Judah. In a variation on Psalm 1, Jeremiah first portrays the opposite of the blessed man in Ps 1:1–3: the man who relies on human strength will be left like a parched, isolated shrub in the desert (Jer 17:5–6). In contrast, the man who trusts Yahweh will have abundant water and green leaves. He does not worry even when the “heat” comes, which in this context refers to the coming invasion from the north (17:7–8).
17:9–13 The dark irony of Judah’s sin is that the heart is so deceitful that it incomprehensibly chooses to be the parched shrub instead of the verdant tree (17:9)! Somehow it makes perfect sense to Judah to ignore Yahweh, the fountain of living water (17:13; cf. 2:13), the all-knowing judge of human hearts (17:10), and to forsake his glorious throne for a counterfeit treasure that will vanish (17:11–12). Even when it is obvious that choosing Yahweh means life and forsaking him means death (cf. Deut 30:15–20), Judah’s heart is so enslaved to sin that it will always choose death.
17:14–18 Jeremiah interrupts these condemning words with an urgent plea for Yahweh to deliver him. He is facing increasing opposition and mockery from the people (17:15), and yet he has not left his post (17:16). But Yahweh seems far from his cries, and so again Jeremiah cries for healing, which in his case means deliverance from the shame and reproach he is facing (17:14, 17–18). The word “dismay” in 17:18 is important: Yahweh said he would dismay Jeremiah’s opponents (8:9) but exhorted Jeremiah not to be dismayed (1:17). Jeremiah is now praying Yahweh’s words back to him, asking him to be faithful to deliver him from dismay (cf. 1:8, 19). Yet we hear no reply from Yahweh.
17:19–27 Instead, Yahweh commissions Jeremiah to perform another confrontation at a gate (cf. 7:2). This time Jeremiah will stand at the gates of the city, not the temple (17:19), and this time he particularly challenges the people on their sabbath-breaking. The sabbath was particularly important in the law of Moses, for it was the sign of the covenant (Exod 31:13–17), the unique command (unparalleled in the ancient Near East) that set Israel apart from all the surrounding nations. By keeping the sabbath day holy, they showed themselves to be holy, set apart. But Judah has ignored this command, thus becoming like any other nation (Jer 17:23). Again, we hear a stark contrast between the lavish abundance that comes from obedience (17:24–26) and the terror that comes from disobedience (17:27). In chapter 18, we will see what the people decide.
18:1–12 Chapter 18 begins with another sign-act, the visit to the potter’s house (18:1–12). The purpose of this visit is not simply to rehash the point that obedience leads to life and disobedience leads to death; rather, the purpose is to show that Yahweh may change his stated intentions toward a people, which is a gracious thing in Judah’s case. Yahweh illustrates this point by showing Jeremiah a potter, who begins his work with wet clay intending to make a certain kind of vessel. But when the vessel is spoiled in the potter’s hand, rather than starting over, he reworks the clay into a different vessel (18:3–4).
Yahweh then explains the analogy: in the same way, Yahweh can declare that his intention is to do either good or harm to a nation (notice that good and harm are defined in 18:7, 9 in terms of “building” and “planting” (good), and in terms of “plucking up,” “breaking down,” and “destroying” (harm); cf. 1:10). But then, if the nation alters its ways, Yahweh reserves the right to reverse his stated intentions, just as the potter has done with his wet clay. We understand from the larger context of Scripture that Yahweh’s true intentions (his eternal decree) never change (Eph 1:11; Rom 9:15, 18).
A vivid example of God reversing his stated intention is with Jonah: Yahweh’s stated intention was to overthrow Nineveh (Jonah 3:4), but when Nineveh repented, Yahweh was pleased to relent from the disaster (3:10; note how this language parallels Jer 18:8).9 The opposite dynamic is currently in effect for Judah in Jeremiah’s day: Yahweh had intended good for them (cf. all the promises to Abraham and David; Jer 17:25–26). But now, because of their sin, he is shaping disaster for them (18:11). The implication is that Judah should repent and cast themselves on Yahweh’s mercy, that he might again intend good for them.
Judah’s response to this gracious offer reveals their true condition. They say, “That is in vain! We will follow our own plans, and will every one act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart” (18:12). It is unlikely that a self-deceived people like Judah would ever speak so baldly (cf. 2:35). This is stylized language that uncovers the true condition of their heart. When called upon to relent of their sin (e.g., their sabbath-breaking in 17:24–27) and escape the coming disaster, the people instead double down on their apostasy and demand their own plans.
18:13–17 The chance for repentance has now passed. In 18:13–17 Yahweh responds to their unrepentance with appalled disgust. Again, he asks if any nation has ever done wickedness like this (18:13; cf. 2:10–11). Though Yahweh is the fount of living water (18:14; cf. 2:13), they prefer their counterfeit gods to him, even when it is obvious that their sin leads to desolation (18:16). What is this except sin raising its fist in futile defiance? The only reward left to Judah is the satisfaction of having defied Yahweh, thus unveiling their raw hatred of him. Reconciliation between Judah and Yahweh is now impossible (18:17).
18:18–23 Meanwhile, the people also express their rejection of Yahweh through their hatred of his prophet (18:18). They have not the slightest intention of listening to his words; their only goal is to strike back at him, and Jeremiah responds with his most vindictive prayer for vengeance (18:19–23). The prophet’s response seems resentful and retaliatory. He recalls how he had done the people good by warning of the coming calamity. He even prayed to Yahweh on their behalf (18:20; cf. 14:7–10, 19–22)! But they have only hated him in response and plotted his demise. And so, Jeremiah gives vent to his fury with the most intense imprecations: he wishes the death of their children (18:21), the plunder of their houses (18:22), and utter condemnation for their souls (18:23).
Before we hasten to condemn Jeremiah for these harsh words, we should remember that they find parallels in the Psalms (e.g., Pss 109; 137). Moreover, Jeremiah is coming to the same resolve as Yahweh himself, who intends not to forgive (Jer 2:22), not to spare the children (6:11; 14:16; 16:3), and to deplete the people of all their goods (15:13). Still, there is a contrast between Jeremiah and Yahweh. While Yahweh condemns them with regret (2:35; 18:15; cf. Ezek 18:23) and ultimately seeks the people’s restoration (e.g., Jer 16:14–15), Jeremiah simply is out for blood. Again, Jeremiah’s prayer receives no response from Yahweh. Jeremiah’s agony is approaching its extremity.
19:1–20:18 In Jeremiah 19–20 we reach the climax of both divine wrath and prophetic agony. Jeremiah 19:1–20:6 unfolds a narrative of Jeremiah’s preaching and persecution, followed by the prophet’s disturbing prayer to Yahweh (20:7–18).
19:1–13 The sign-act of the broken flask connects closely to the visit to the potter in 18:1–12. The clay that was previously wet and malleable has now hardened into a flask for a particular purpose. Jeremiah buys the potter’s vessel with the explicit intent of destroying it (19:10; cf. Rom 9:22). In the same way, Judah has hardened into a vessel of wrath by their refusal to repent (cf. Jer 18:12). All that remains is their destruction.
Appropriately, Jeremiah proclaims this final message in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom (the same location as the Topheth where the people had been sacrificing their children). His words recall his temple sermon (7:1–8:3), the book of Deuteronomy (e.g., Jer 19:7 and Deut 28:26), and other texts that explain the significance of the coming catastrophe. For example, the reference to ears “tingling” (Jer 19:3) recalls the promise Yahweh made in 2 Kings 21:12, that he would bring a gut-wrenching judgment on Judah for the sins of Manasseh. That day is now about to arrive. Just as Judah’s children were unjustly slaughtered in Topheth, so now all Judah will be slaughtered and cast into Topheth (Jer 19:4, 11); indeed, the whole city will become like Topheth (19:12).
19:14–20:6 Jeremiah now returns to the temple to proclaim the same message (19:14). The heart of his Topheth sermon was the people’s unrepentance: because they have stiffened their neck and refused to hear Yahweh’s words, their doom is sure (19:15). There is no longer any possibility that the doom could be averted by repentance.
This dire message strikes pointedly at the false hopes that the people placed in the temple (cf. 7:4). One of the priests, Pashhur, was so outraged at Jeremiah’s preaching that he had him beaten and placed in the stocks, a deeply humiliating punishment reserved for madmen and other extreme offenders (20:1–2; cf. 29:26). In response, Jeremiah emphatically restates his prediction that Jerusalem will fall, this time indicating that Pashhur himself will go into exile and die there, for it is he who is a false prophet, not Jeremiah (20:3–6).
20:7–18 The previous unit portrays Jeremiah as having great resolution and courage and as one who will go on preaching even as he is released from the stocks. But in this final complaint to Yahweh, we see that Jeremiah is actually struggling deeply. His mood shifts wildly, going from heated accusation against Yahweh (20:7–10) to trust in Yahweh (20:11–13) to deep despair (20:14–18).
Jeremiah feels deeply betrayed by Yahweh. If God promised to be with him and deliver him from his enemies (1:8, 19), then why has he been so humiliated (20:7)? Jeremiah confesses that he has tried to refrain from preaching the judgment that brings such opposition from the people. But doing so puts him dangerously close to an alliance with his enemies, who attempted to silence him (11:21). Yahweh, however, has proven stronger (20:7): Jeremiah has not been able to hold back the burning words within him (20:8–9). And thus even his closest friends mock him (in 20:10 they parody the words, “terror on every side,” which appeared on Jeremiah’s lips in 6:25 and 20:3).
The next verses (20:11–13) read as Jeremiah’s final attempt to summon his hope in Yahweh. He calls to mind Yahweh’s promise to deliver him and turn his enemies to shame (20:11; cf. 1:19). He commits his cause to Yahweh once more (20:12; cf. 11:20) and summons others to praise Yahweh in confidence that his prayers will be heard (20:13).
But suddenly Jeremiah is overwhelmed with gloom. Like Job (Job 3:3), he curses the day he was born (Jer 20:14). In Jeremiah’s case, this amounts to a renunciation of his call, since Yahweh had intended him as a prophet from birth, even from the womb (1:5). Jeremiah cannot fathom why Yahweh has called him from the womb to a life of shame (20:18). Why has he not fulfilled his promise to rescue him?
Amazingly, after such intense words, there is no reply from Yahweh, nor is there a clear resolution to Jeremiah’s accusations or self-curse. What is clear, however, is that Jeremiah emerges from the ashes of his soul as a new man: in the rest of the book, he never flinches from his duty or accuses Yahweh of infidelity, even though Jeremiah experiences many other deprivations. The answer Jeremiah must have found is the answer he will now go on to preach, namely, that Yahweh is a God of the resurrection. In what seems to be irreversible death, he provides a miraculous way forward to new life, a way that every Christian finds when they despair of saving themselves and instead cast themselves on Jesus.
Hope Reawakened, but Only through Judgment (21:1–24:10)
The three series of judgment texts (4:5–20:18) hammered difficult themes of stubborn sin, prophetic anguish, and unrelenting divine wrath. Now, after what seemed to be the end of the prophet (20:14–18), we emerge on the other side into a new world. It is still a world of judgment, but a new thread appears. The previous texts gave the impression that judgment will be the end of Judah; judgment will be as permanent as death (e.g., 15:14; 17:4; 19:11). In chapters 21–24, however, the new idea is that there is a way to life through judgment. Each of the four units that follow develop this idea in unique ways.
21:1–10 In 21:1–2 Jeremiah receives an envoy from King Zedekiah asking for Jeremiah to inquire of Yahweh as to whether he “will deal with us according to all his wonderful deeds and make [Nebuchadnezzar] withdraw from us.” Almost certainly the king is recalling the amazing deliverance in Hezekiah’s day (2Kgs 19:35–37). The situation is almost identical: a seemingly unstoppable army has surrounded Jerusalem, bent on its destruction. Only a miracle can save Judah. But while Yahweh was pleased to answer Hezekiah’s prayer positively, he now has a very different answer for Zedekiah.
Yahweh says he will turn back the weapons of war that are in Judah’s hands (Jer 21:4). Yahweh himself will fight against his people using the same outstretched arm he used against Egypt (21:5; cf. Exod 3:20; 6:6). There will be no compassion: those who do not die from pestilence, sword, and famine during the siege will perish by the sword after the siege (Jer 21:7).
All seems lost. Who can fight against Yahweh? But 21:8–10 has a special word for the people. In a play on Deuteronomy 30:15–20 (the climax of Moses’s farewell sermon on Mt. Nebo), God once again sets before his people the way of life and the way of death. Only this time, the way of death is to remain in the city (Jer 21:9)! In contrast, the one who goes out and surrenders to the Chaldeans will live. The paradox is profound: the only way to gain one’s life is to accept death. The one who abandons the false hope that the temple will defend them (cf. 7:4) and who recognizes that God is justly judging his people (contrast 5:12) will accept that the Babylonians must win. God fights for the Babylonians against Judah; therefore, the only godly response is to surrender.
The same paradox confronts every sinner. To resist our need for a savior is to oppose God (Acts 5:39). But to acknowledge that we deserve death for our sin—an apparently hopeless admission—is actually the first step to life (Luke 18:13)!
21:11–23:8 Jeremiah has laid out the general principle that surrender to Babylon leads to life, while resistance to Babylon leads to death. The next two sections delve into the significance of this principle, first for the kings (21:11–23:8), and second for the prophets (23:9–40). Regarding the kings, Jeremiah first speaks to the house of David as a whole (21:11–22:10). Then he addresses each king in turn (see the introduction for a genealogical chart): Shallum (a.k.a., Jehoahaz; 22:11–12), Jehoiakim (22:13–19), and Coniah (a.k.a., Jehoiachin; 22:24–30). Finally, instead of Zedekiah, we have a surprise king, the messiah (23:1–8).
The word to the unnamed “king of Judah” in 21:11–22:10 reads as a condemnation of the last four kings in general. The text is in two parts, with each part having a parallel scheme: Yahweh first demands justice for the oppressed (21:11–12c and 22:1–3), then threatens judgment for their disobedience (21:12d–14 and 22:4–10). Yahweh has always demanded that the kings use their power not to oppress the weak, but to defend them from oppression (Deut 17:20; 24:17). This is summarized in the key phrase, “do justice and righteousness” (Jer 22:3; cf. 22:15; 23:5; 1Kgs 10:9). But because the kings have actually furthered the oppression of the weak, they will be judged. Yahweh repeatedly uses the image of a fire that consumes a forest (Jer 21:12, 14; 22:7). This image alludes to the king’s palace, which was built using a “forest” of cedar trees (2Sam 7:2; 1Kgs 7:2). The kings’ sin will cause their splendor to go up in flames.
Jeremiah now proceeds through each branch of Josiah’s line, cutting off each son one by one. Shallum (Jehoahaz) will go into exile and never return (Jer 22:11–12). Jehoiakim, whose sin is particularly notorious (indeed, he is the preeminent sinner in the book of Jeremiah; see chs. 26 and 36), receives an intense condemnation. He oppressed the weak for his own advantage, forcing people to work to renovate his palace and never repaying them (22:13–14). This behavior is the opposite of his father, Josiah, who knew that great kingship was not about ostentatious wealth but about justice and righteousness for all (22:15–16). This faithfulness is what it means for a king to know Yahweh (22:16; cf. 9:24). Therefore Jehoiakim, who instead did “oppression and violence” (22:17), faces an utterly shameful death: he will be dumped like a dead donkey outside the gates of Jerusalem, without any lamentation (22:18–19).
Next Jeremiah includes a brief interlude (22:20–23) about how Judah’s rulers (styled as “shepherds”) will be betrayed by their allies (styled as “lovers”). The kings looked for powerful allies like Egypt to deliver them from Babylon, but these allies will only leave them “ashamed and confounded” (22:22; see 37:5–8).
Coniah (Jehoiachin, the son of Jehoiakim and grandson of Josiah) comes next (22:24–30). Like Jehoahaz, he only reigned three months. But he receives a much longer oracle than Jehoahaz. First, Yahweh swears that he will fling Coniah into exile (22:24–27; cf. Deut 28:36; 29:28), even though he is Yahweh’s signet (a prized possession and emblem of his authority; cf. 1Kgs 21:8; Song 8:6). Like the wilderness generation (Num 14:35), both Coniah and his mother will die outside the land. Jeremiah then laments Coniah’s loss: as opposed to the ideal king of Psalm 2:9, he is treated like useless pottery (Jer 22:28). And Jeremiah 22:30 states that over against the Davidic hope in 2 Samuel 7:13–16, Coniah’s seed will not reign on the throne; his line has no future.
We expect Zedekiah to come next. But Yahweh ignores him (perhaps because he has more words for Zedekiah later in 32:4–5; 38:17–23) and instead speaks of “Yahweh our righteousness” (Yahweh ṣidqēnû, a play on Zedekiah’s name). After the exile, Yahweh promises to gather his flock back and set over them godly shepherds (i.e., rulers; 23:3–4). One special ruler will come: the “righteous branch” of the line of David, who will finally do justice and righteousness in the land (23:5–6). God’s saving power will be so great in that day that it will eclipse his former saving work in the exodus from Egypt (23:7–8).
The transition from Coniah (22:24–30) to the righteous branch (23:5–6) powerfully illustrates the principle that “accepting death leads to life” (21:8–10). The Davidic line seems to be permanently cut off (22:30). But Coniah was the one king who surrendered to the king of Babylon as Jeremiah had instructed (2Kgs 24:12). Hence Coniah reemerges as if from the dead in Jeremiah 52:31–34. Amazingly, the king who was written off as “childless” actually is the future of the Davidic line (Ezek 17:22–24; much like Abraham, who was also “childless”; Gen 15:2; Jer 33:22). Coniah’s grandson Zerubbabel becomes a picture of how Yahweh will put the signet ring, which he had once flung away, back on his finger (Hag 2:20–23). Jesus’s line is even reckoned through Coniah, the “childless” one (referred to as “Jechoniah” in Matt 1:12). Coniah thus foreshadows Jesus. Because Coniah accepted exile, the Davidic line paradoxically found a future through him. In a similar way, Jesus becomes the righteous branch who reigns in righteousness forever because he went to the cross for us.10
23:9–40 The prophets, on the other hand, receive a much less hopeful message. They can only expect God’s fullest wrath and judgment. Their key sin was false prophecy. They claimed to have a word from Yahweh, when actually they were speaking “visions of their own minds” (23:16, 18, 21–22, 25–26, 32). Their so-called “prophecies” encouraged the people to forsake Yahweh and run to Baal instead (23:13, 27). They also explicitly denied the “accepting death leads to life” principle by telling the people that no disaster would come upon them (23:17; cf. 4:10; 14:13). Then, when disaster did come, they insisted that it would be short-lived (28:11). All of this led to godless and sensual living among the people, which the prophets themselves exemplified (23:10–11, 14).
Therefore, because the false prophets sought to preserve their lives and encouraged others to remain in the city, they will lose everything (21:9a; cf. Matt 16:25). They who brought darkness into the minds of others will themselves walk in darkness (Jer 23:12); they who fed the people on poison will themselves drink poison (23:15); and they who falsely claimed to have a “burden” (i.e., an oracle) will themselves be like a burden that Yahweh casts off, to their “everlasting reproach and perpetual shame” (23:33, 40).
24:1–10 The final section in this unit illustrates the contrast between those who accept exile and those who attempt to remain in the land. The timeframe is the reign of Zedekiah, when some citizens of Jerusalem had already gone into exile with King Jehoiachin (Coniah) in 597, while the rest of Judah remained in the land (24:1). The two groups appear in a vision to Jeremiah as two kinds of figs. The good figs are very good, and the bad figs are disgusting and rotten (24:2–3). Yahweh then explains that the good figs correspond to those who have gone into exile (24:5). These Judeans are not morally superior to those who remain in the land—Yahweh is only choosing to “regard” the good figs as good (24:5). What distinguishes the groups from each other is that one has experienced and accepted the ultimate covenant curse of exile, while another has not.
Jeremiah 24:6–7 declares that those who have experienced Yahweh’s final judgment—that is, the very ones who seem to have no future—are now the heirs of a glorious future! They have been plucked up and torn down, but now Yahweh resolves to build them and plant them (24:6). The heart of this new beginning will be the gift of new hearts (24:7). At long last, the core problem of sin’s bondage will be solved by a still greater power: Yahweh’s ability to change his people’s hearts so they truly know him. The new covenant promise will develop this hope further (31:33–34).
In contrast, those who remain in the land have no future except the worst kind of judgment (24:8–10). Zedekiah and the rest of Judah in the land, as well as those who sought to escape Babylonian hegemony in Egypt (perhaps a proleptic reference to the Judeans in chapters 43–44), will all become a horror, a reproach and a taunt, even in their exile. In their case, there is no future at all, even through exile, for they never accepted that they deserved this punishment.
Jeremiah 24 reminds us that the time for repentance is now. People who attempt to preserve their lives and who refuse to give them up to Jesus will end up losing their lives (Matt 16:25), and when the final judgment comes, it will be too late, even if they seek for mercy with many tears (Heb 12:17).
The Hinge: Babylon’s Temporary Hegemony (25:1–38)
Even though exile seems like the end, chapters 21–24 show that it is actually the transition to a new beginning, and chapter 25 explains this time of transition. This chapter functions as the hinge of the book of Jeremiah. It finishes the theme of plucking up and tearing down in 4:5–24:10 by showing that God’s plan is for Babylon to judge not just Judah but all the nations. And chapter 25 also begins to explain the theme of building and planting, for it shows that Babylon’s hegemony will be temporary. Yahweh will judge Babylon itself one day, and on that day the transitional time of exile will come to an end. As we will see later, Babylon becomes a symbol of all that is evil, such that the fall of literal Babylon in the 6th c. BC does not completely fulfill the prophecy in chapters 50–51. The true end of exile comes when Jesus defeats Satan’s empire (the ultimate Babylon).
Jeremiah 25:1–14 gives an overview of Babylon’s rise and fall, and 25:15–29 uses the cup of wrath to illustrate how Babylon will destroy all peoples. Finally, 25:30–38 declares that Babylon’s assault has already begun: Yahweh the great lion has begun to roar against all nations.
25:1–14 The date at the head of this chapter signals that a great shift has happened. This oracle comes “in the fourth year of Jehoiakim . . . [which is] the first year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon” (25:1). For the first time, a date is logged by the regnal years of a foreign king. The sons of David once served as God’s anointed vassals, ruling on his behalf, but now Nebuchadnezzar has become the servant of Yahweh (25:9; cf. 27:6). As Jeremiah will make clear later, Judah must now give their fealty to Nebuchadnezzar and not the sons of David (27:12). Dates are reckoned by the one who rules; this foreign king is now the legitimate ruler of God’s land!
Such a transition seems too awful to accept—God’s people are now subject to a gentile tyrant? Jeremiah explains the reason for this shift in 25:3–7. Jeremiah had tirelessly conveyed the word of Yahweh to Judah for twenty-three years, but they stubbornly refused to listen. Therefore, Yahweh now enacts the plan he showed to Jeremiah at the very beginning of his ministry: he will bring all the tribes of the north (25:9; notice the same language in 1:15) to destroy Judah. Jeremiah here identifies Babylon as the mysterious foe from the north who brings all the judgment in 4:5–20:18. The phrase “devote them to destruction” in 25:9 is special language that recalls what Israel was commanded to do to the Canaanites when they entered the land (Deut 7:2). Now the tables are turned: the nations will devote God’s people to destruction and displace them from the land.
In God’s grace, the story does not end there. When seventy years are completed, Yahweh will punish Babylon, for they too are full of iniquity and worthy of punishment (25:12–14). Joyful blessings for Judah will accompany Babylon’s fall, as Jeremiah 29 and 50–51 make clear. (On the seventy years, see the excursus under chapter 29 below.)
25:15–29 Yahweh now illustrates his plan for Babylon using the sign-act of the cup filled with wine. As in 13:12–13, the wine here is not a desirable drink, but “the wine of wrath” (25:15), which evokes the heat and madness of drunkenness (25:16; cf. Ps 75:8; Prov 23:30–35; Jer 51:7). All nations must drink this cup, and Jeremiah lists them in 25:18–26. The list begins with Judah, the first recipient of God’s wrath, and it ends with šēšak, a code name for Babylon (cf. 51:41; Hab 2:16). Upon drinking this awful cup, the nations will become “drunk and vomit; [they will] fall and rise no more” (Jer 25:27).
This cup of wrath provides the background for Jesus’s extraordinary prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, when he asks that the Father “let this cup pass from me” (Matt 26:39). Because the Father made the Son drain this cup of wrath for us, and because the Son was willing to do so (John 18:11), we now are able to drink a cup of blessing from his hand when we take the Lord’s Supper (1Cor 10:16).
25:30–38 If the previous passage inspired the dread of Yahweh’s coming wrath, then this last section should inspire terror, for Yahweh proclaims that he has roared as a lion against the nations (25:30) and that he has already set forth on his errand of destruction (25:38). The tempest has already begun to stir (25:32), and just like in a horrible tornado or hurricane, there will be no refuge (25:35). Yahweh’s wrath is against “all flesh” (25:31), especially the “shepherds,” the leaders of these reprobate nations (25:34).
The Building and Planting of Judah (26:1–33:26)
After night comes the dawn. The previous chapters have been dark and difficult, but the promises of Judah’s restoration contained here bring great consolation (chs. 30–33 are often called the “book of consolation”). But we must never forget that the only way to arrive at this consolation is through exile. Exile must precede restoration, just as death must precede resurrection (Luke 9:22; contrast Luke 4:5–7; Mark 15:30). And thus chapters 26–29 emphasize the suffering that precedes Judah’s restoration. There is no shortcut around exile.
Jeremiah’s Preservation from Death (26:1–24)
This chapter retells how Jeremiah delivered the sermon recorded in 7:1–8:3. However, the purpose of chapter 26 is quite different. Jeremiah 7:1–8:3 focused on the message of Jeremiah, while Jeremiah 26 focuses on the various responses of the people. A brief summary of Jeremiah’s message tells of God’s intent to destroy temple and city if the people do not repent (26:4–6).
First, the priests, prophets, and people respond (26:7–11). They find Jeremiah worthy of death because he speaks against the temple and the city. Apparently, they charge Jeremiah with blasphemy: Jeremiah’s enemies equate his speaking against God’s institutions with speaking against God himself, which is a capital offense (Lev 24:16).
Jeremiah responds by insisting that Yahweh himself has sent him (Jer 26:12–15). If they kill him, then they will be guilty of murder, the shedding of innocent blood.
The officials and the people then respond favorably, declaring that Jeremiah is not worthy of death (26:16–19). They give two reasons. First, they recognize that Jeremiah is speaking in the name of Yahweh, and therefore they cannot accuse him of speaking against Yahweh (26:16). Second, the elders recall a precedent for Jeremiah’s message. Micah of Moresheth had prophesied a similar message against Zion about a hundred years prior in the days of Hezekiah. In witness of this they cite Micah 3:12 and recall that Hezekiah did not put Micah to death, but rather listened to him and thereby avoided destruction (Jer 26:17–19).
Several points emerge from this narrative. For the first time in the book of Jeremiah, we see a positive response to his message alongside the negative one. Indeed, the crowd actually switches sides from calling for Jeremiah’s death (26:7) to calling for his acquittal (26:16). The officials and elders who stand up for Jeremiah anticipate other figures like Ebed-melech, Baruch, and the household of Shaphan, who remain faithful to him amid other threats on his life. Although the people as a whole will eventually reject the prophet, there is a remnant who listens.
Second, the epilogue of this story mentions the death of Uriah, a faithful prophet who proclaimed the same word as Jeremiah, but whom Jehoiakim put to death (26:20–23). This epilogue emphasizes God’s faithfulness to his promise to protect Jeremiah (26:24; cf. 1:8, 18–19). Uriah and Jeremiah proclaimed the same word of judgment, but Jeremiah survived to proclaim the word of hope that came after the word of judgment.
Third, Jehoiakim’s rejection of this word (seen even more vividly in ch. 36) shows us how Jeremiah’s time is different from Micah’s. Both Micah and Jeremiah preached the fall of Jerusalem. But Hezekiah received the word with repentance, and Yahweh relented from the disaster (26:19; cf. 18:8). This time the king rejects the word, signaling that judgment is imminent.
Jesus also was brought up on charges of preaching against the temple (Matt 26:61). In Jeremiah’s time, Jeremiah was threatened with death because of his message, but he was released because the people feared bringing innocent blood on themselves (Jer 26:15). Jeremiah’s time was more wicked than Hezekiah’s, but Jesus’s time was more wicked still: Jesus was not released, and the people actually called down innocent blood on themselves (Matt 27:4, 24–25).
The True Nature of Exile: Long, but Hopeful (27:1–29:32)
Jeremiah 27–29 functions to refute several false ideas about exile. In chapters 27–28, Jeremiah opposes false prophets in Jerusalem who tell people not to serve Nebuchadnezzar (ch. 27) and who say that the exile will be short (ch. 28). In chapter 29, Jeremiah refutes false prophets abroad in Babylon who teach similar lies.
27:1–15 In the reign of Zedekiah, Yahweh asserts his right as the high king over all nations to give those nations to whichever ruler he wishes to rule over them. He communicates first to the nations (27:3–11), and then to Zedekiah (27:12–15). On the basis of his having created all the earth (27:5), Yahweh sovereignly gives Judah and the kingdoms surrounding it to the lordship of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, and pictures this new arrangement using a yoke (27:2). Yahweh knows that both the diviners of the nations and the false prophets of Judah will oppose this message of submission to Babylon (27:9–10, 14), so he enforces it with a promise and a threat. If the nations accept the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar, then they will be permitted to remain on their land (27:11; note that this offer is not extended to Judah, since they have already been consigned to exile). If the nations or Judah do not accept Nebuchadnezzar’s yoke, then they will perish by sword, famine, and pestilence (27:8, 13).
Yahweh styles Nebuchadnezzar as his “servant” (27:6), a title that recalls many figures (Moses, Joshua, etc.). But in this royal context we remember how David and his line were called the “servants” of Yahweh (2Sam 7:5; 1Kgs 3:7). They were exalted over every other king on earth (Ps 89:27). Now this honor passes to Nebuchadnezzar. Even the beasts are given into Nebuchadnezzar’s hands (Jer 27:5–6; 28:14), which suggests that he is not just a new David, but also a new Adam, the highest human king in creation (Gen 1:26–28; 2:19).
But the king of Babylon will only hold this honor for a short time. After two more generations of Babylonian rule (27:7), they also will fall. The book of Daniel explains how Babylon was actually the first of several empires to rule in lieu of David. In particular, Daniel 2 and 7 unite the Babylonians, Medes, Persians, and Greeks as a progression of kingdoms who are all essentially one phase of Israel’s history (note how all four comprise one statue in Daniel 2; cf. Isa 45:1).11 After these kingdoms (which, in the hindsight of history, we also understand to include the Romans), the kingdom of God will come (Dan 2:44; 7:27). Thus, when Jesus exercises sovereignty over the beasts (Mark 1:13), he shows that he has received the mantle that the foreign kings previously held. He instructs his disciples to take his yoke upon them (Matt 11:28–30), which will be a much lighter yoke than the heavy yoke of the nations (cf. Jer 30:8). By the grace of God, the time of gentile oppression is over, and a son of David now reigns forever as king of kings and Lord of lords (1Tim 6:15). We must submit to him.
27:16–22 This text refutes another false claim of Judah’s prophets, namely, that the temple vessels Nebuchadnezzar took away will soon be returned (27:16). Such a claim could potentially undermine Judah’s submission to Nebuchadnezzar, since it gives the impression that he will only have supremacy for a short time. In reality, the vessels will remain in Babylon for a long time (cf. Dan 5:2). But just as Jeremiah 27:7 promised that Nebuchadnezzar’s reign will one day end, this text promises that Babylon will one day relinquish the temple vessels. Yahweh will bring them back (27:22; cf. Ezra 1:7–11).
28:1–17 This chapter gives us a sense of how bewildering false prophecy can be. On the one hand, Hananiah speaks in the name of Yahweh (28:2), he promises something that sounds encouraging (the swift return of the temple vessels and the exiles; 28:3–4), and he performs a dramatic sign-act, taking the yoke-bars from Jeremiah’s neck and breaking them (28:10–11). The narrator even calls him “Hananiah the prophet” (28:5, emphasis mine).
We know from chapter 27 that Jeremiah completely opposes Hananiah’s message. Yet in this confrontation, Jeremiah simply reminds the people of two things. First, he reminds them that his message of judgment has an ancient pedigree among true prophets of Yahweh (28:8), thus situating himself squarely in the tradition of “my servants the prophets” (7:25; 26:5). Second, Jeremiah reminds them that a prophet who prophesies peace will be vindicated only if his words come to pass (28:9; cf. Deut 18:22). Jeremiah does not need to say anything more to prove his word’s veracity; God’s word is self-attesting and comes with its own authentication (John 10:4; 1Cor 2:12–16).
Still, as a Judean listener to this prophetic conflict, how would you know whose message is true? In addition to the points made by Jeremiah, God helps his people by a dramatic sign. Hananiah has been one-sidedly emphasizing Yahweh’s grace to the exclusion of his justice (the name “Hananiah” even means “Yahweh is gracious”). Ironically, even though Hananiah attempts to elevate the people’s spirits with the hope of a quick return to normalcy, his false prophecy will bring a heavier burden on the people. In place of a wooden yoke, the people will receive the heavy iron yoke of Nebuchadnezzar (28:13), a sign of God’s covenant curse (Deut 28:48). To prove this, Jeremiah declares that Hananiah will die within the year (Jer 28:16), an appropriately swift end to one who deceived people into thinking the restoration would come swiftly. As a testimony to the people of Jeremiah’s legitimacy, within a few months’ time, Hananiah did die (28:17).
29:1–32 This chapter begins with Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles (29:1–23). In an astonishing reversal, the ones who are under God’s ultimate curse (exile) and whose hope of blessing seemed at an end are the very ones who have a future! Yahweh’s first word to the exiles in Babylon is that they must “build” and “plant” (29:5). The reference to the theme verse in 1:10 is unmistakable and shows that the blessing of a future is ironically found in Babylon, not in Jerusalem. All the activities that Jeremiah commands are long-term activities: building houses, planting gardens, marrying, and having children (29:5–6). In doing these things, they acknowledge that exile will be long, and therefore they repudiate the false prophets who say it will be short (e.g., 28:3). By forsaking the false “peace” prophets (14:13), the people in exile will find true “peace” (translated “welfare” in 29:7).
But this time of temporary welfare in Babylon is not the ultimate building and planting that Yahweh has in store for his faithful remnant. When seventy years are complete, Yahweh will do much more for them. Notwithstanding their inability to repent as they ought, Yahweh’s long-term plans for them are good and not evil (29:11), a sign that he will transcend the “repent and I will do you good” dynamic illustrated in 18:1–10. He will take the initiative to enable them to repent, to call upon him, and to seek him with all their heart (29:12–13). This language of the exiles turning to Yahweh “with all their hearts” is quite significant, for they have been unable to do so thus far (cf. 3:10). But according to Deuteronomy 30:1–3, they must repent in this way before God will bring them back from exile. Thus, Yahweh gives his people a future by first giving them new hearts that are able to repent and whole-heartedly seek him (Jer 3:22; 24:7; 32:39).
But to enjoy these promises, the exiles must steer clear of false prophecy, even when they are in Babylon (29:15–23 sounds this theme in Jeremiah’s first letter; a follow-up in response to Shemaiah is recorded in 29:24–32). Jeremiah 24 introduced the contrast between the good figs in exile and the bad figs who refused to accept God’s judgment. Jeremiah’s letter develops this contrast still more. Simply being in exile does not qualify one as a “good fig.” Even the exiles can become bad figs if they listen to false prophets like Ahab the son of Kolaiah, Zedekiah the son of Maaseiah, and Shemaiah of Nehelam (29:17). The key is whether the exiles are willing to accept a long exile as the just consequence for their sins (cf. Dan 9:3–19). The false prophets who encourage the exiles to reject Jeremiah’s teaching will find exile to be a hopeless place of total punishment (Jer 29:21–22, 32). In a similar way, NT believers must be careful to avoid false teachers who will “tickle our ears” with pleasing teaching that downplays sin (2Tim 4:3).
Excursus on the Seventy Years and the Significance of Babylon
Twice Jeremiah refers to the “70 years” for Babylon (25:11–12; 29:10). Many believe this is a literal number, such that Jeremiah predicts the precise date of Babylon’s fall. However, the dates do not correspond neatly. Cyrus conquers Babylon in 539, and 2 Chronicles 36:20–21 identifies this event as the endpoint of the seventy years (cf. Jer 25:12; 29:10). The seventy years are variously described as the time of Babylon’s supremacy (Jer 25:11), the time of Yahweh’s anger (Zech 1:12), the duration of Jerusalem’s desolations (Dan 9:2), the years of Judah’s fasting and mourning (Zech 7:5), and the time during which the land enjoyed its sabbath rest (2Chr 36:21). Taken together, these texts suggest that we should start the seventy years with either the ascendancy of Nebuchadnezzar (who began to reign in 605) or the fall of Jerusalem (586). Neither date makes for a clean seventy years prior to 539.
Therefore, the seventy years is best understood as a symbolic number, corresponding either to a human lifetime (Ps 90:10) or to the passing of three or so generations (Jer 27:7), which is the duration of Yahweh’s wrath (Exod 20:5; 34:7). A symbolic understanding of the seventy years also accords with how prophets usually use numbers,12 and it paves the way for the divine reinterpretation of Jeremiah’s seventy years as “seventy weeks” (or “seventy sevens,” perhaps meaning a symbolic 490 years) in Daniel 9:24. The book of Daniel understands the time when God rules his people through gentile empires as much longer than the tenure of Babylon (see above under Jer 27:1–15). In God’s wise providence, exile will continue for centuries, until the coming of Christ. Even after some people return to Judah from Babylon (see Ezra-Nehemiah), they are still in exile (or “bondage”) as a spiritual state of being under God’s wrath (Ezra 9:8; Neh 9:36; 13:18). Only when Jesus dies on the cross does exile begin to end.13 At that time Jesus breaks the power of the true “Babylon,” which is the kingdom of Satan (Eph 6:12; Col 2:15; Rev 17:5).14 Thus, Israel must wait much longer than seventy literal years for the true fulfillment of God’s promise to judge his people’s oppressors.
A Collage of Hopeful Promises (30:1–31:40)
Until this point, Jeremiah has only spoken briefly of the great hope that awaits God’s people after exile. Now he dedicates four entire chapters to the exposition of this glorious hope (chs. 30–33). In the first two chapters, Jeremiah sets forth the hope of restoration as a series of pictures (a “collage”). Judgment was multifaceted, as Yahweh plucked up and tore down every dimension of Judah’s life (the kings, the covenant, the land, the temple, the priesthood, etc.). In the same way, restoration will be multifaceted. As the hymn says, “He comes to make His blessings flow / Far as the curse is found.” Again and again, chapters 30–31 recall the language of God’s judgment and declare that he will reverse it. We have heard what it means for Yahweh to pluck up and overthrow. Now we will hear what it means for him to build and to plant (31:28; cf. 1:10). (For the timing of when these promises are fulfilled, see the excursus below, after chapter 33.)
30:1–11 Yahweh now speaks of the restoration of his people’s fortunes, a restoration that centers on the end of exile and the return to the land (30:3). It is true: the judgment was awful, and the day of God’s vengeance cannot be compared to any other day (30:4–7). But now Yahweh completes his prophecy of judgment by including the second half: “yet [Jacob] shall be saved out of it” (30:7).
Yahweh, who put the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar upon Judah (28:14), will himself break that yoke (30:8). Yahweh, who sent David’s sons into exile to die there (22: 12, 26), will now raise up David once more (30:9). As Yahweh was with Jeremiah to save him (1:8, 19), so he will be with all his people (30:11). The nations whom he made strong to conquer his people will now be destroyed (30:11).
30:12–17 The next picture in the collage concerns Judah’s terrible wound. In exiling his people, Yahweh has wounded Judah with an incurable wound. Babylon may have been the agent, but Yahweh insists: “I have dealt you the blow of an enemy” (30:14); “I have done these things to you” (30:15). The wound, which corresponds to the destruction of every aspect of Judah’s existence, is not the light scratch the false prophets had said it would be (6:14). It is a deep, festering, mortal wound for which there is no cure (14:17; 30:12–13), and it is precisely what Judah deserved for their sin (30:15). But now Yahweh echoes Deuteronomy 32:39 to say that he who has wounded will now heal (Jer 30:17). The healing of Judah means the destruction of their enemies: Yahweh will avenge his people, and those who devoured them will be devoured (30:16; cf. 5:17). Yahweh’s honor is at stake; he will show that he has not forgotten his people (30:17).
30:18–22 This text reminds us that redemption is a “package deal”: all kinds of blessings will come at once when Yahweh saves, and these blessings depend on one another. Yahweh will restore his people’s dwellings and cause the city to be rebuilt (30:18). He will restore his people’s joy (30:19a–b), he will make them numerous again (30:19c–20b), he will punish their oppressors (30:20c), and instead of a foreign tyrant, he will give them a ruler from their own nation who will worship God acceptably (30:21). All of these blessings will flow from the people’s restored relationship with God. Once again Yahweh will speak the covenant formula over them: “you shall be my people and I will be your God” (30:22; cf. Exod 6:7; Hos 2:23). In the light of the NT, we realize that the fulfillment of this saving package spans the entire age from Jesus’s first to his second coming.
30:23–31:14 This picture begins with a recollection of the terrible storm that came upon Judah when Babylon destroyed them (30:23; cf. 23:19–20; 25:32), when Yahweh poured out his terrible anger upon them (30:24a–b; cf. 4:8).
Afterwards, they will understand Yahweh’s justice in doing this (30:24c; cf. Lam 1:18; Dan 9:11; Neh 1:7), and this repentance will lead to an unparalleled outpouring of Yahweh’s love. First, Yahweh announces his love to all the clans of the exiles (Jer 31:1–7). In addition to Judah, Yahweh intends to restore the northern kingdom, who will once again plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria (their former capitol; 31:5). The northern kingdom formerly rejected Yahweh’s true temple in Zion and worshiped at Bethel or Dan instead (1Kgs 12:29–30). In the restoration, they will once again cheerfully go to Zion (which we now understand to be the heavenly Zion; Jer 31:6; cf. John 4:21–24; Heb 12:22–24).
Next, Yahweh depicts the journey home from exile (31:8–9). The people will return from the north country as a great host that will include all people, including the very weak. Yahweh himself will lead them, and they will come with weeping, truly sorrowing over their sin (cf. Luke 6:21; Jas 4:9–10).
Finally, we see the joyous arrival of the former exiles at Zion (31:10–14). They could never have ransomed themselves (31:11), but Yahweh has done it. The people are radiant with the goodness of the land (31:12), and their whole lives are like a watered garden (cf. Isa 58:11). Once again the sounds of singing and gladness will be heard in Zion (Jer 31:13; cf. 7:34; 16:9). Even the priests, who formerly led the charge against Jeremiah, will abound with true, God-centered joy (31:14).
Each of these stages evoke Yahweh’s glorious promises through Isaiah (compare Jer 31:5 and Isa 65:21; Jer 31:8 and Isa 35:5–6; Jer 31:10 and Isa 40:11; Jer 31:12 and Isa 35:10; 58:11). Jeremiah’s and Isaiah’s restoration hopes are one and the same.
31:15–26 As we come to the next picture in the collage, the timeline resets, and Jeremiah again remembers God’s judgment. Ramah was just north of Jerusalem and one of the staging grounds for the journey into exile (Jer 40:1). Many of the exiles needed to pass through it on their way to Babylon, and Rachel is pictured there, weeping for her children who are forever lost (31:15; notice how exilic sorrows continue under Herod in Matt 2:18). But now we hear the voice of Yahweh, who comforts Rachel by telling her to dry her tears, for her children shall miraculously return (Jer 31:16–17)!
Next, the vision shifts perspective to one of Rachel’s offspring, Ephraim (31:18–19). Ephraim is another name for the northern kingdom, and here we see how even he will return from exile, for he will repent (the return will not just be for Judah!). Ephraim laments his sin and asks for Yahweh to restore him (31:18–19; cf. 3:25), much like the prodigal son (Luke 15:18). Yahweh’s response is deeply moving: just like the father in Jesus’s parable, his heart still yearns for his child even after all he has done (31:20). Ephraim is still his son.
And so, Yahweh commands that signposts be erected to guide his people on their return journey home (31:21–22). The metaphor has shifted once more, and now Yahweh addresses his people as a faithless woman. The reference to a “woman encircling a man” (31:22) is perhaps a picture of how the old Israel (Lady Zion / virgin Israel) contains within her womb the messiah, the head of the new Israel, who will return with all their heart (a new thing on the earth!). Jerusalem will again be a habitation of righteousness; Yahweh will grant rest to the weary souls of his people (31:23–25).
In 31:26 we realize that Jeremiah received this vision in a dream. Rather than the nightmares of his judgment visions, Yahweh finally gives pleasant dreams that will one day become reality (cf. Dan 7:1, 28).
31:27–40 We come now to the climax of the entire book of Jeremiah. God will triumph over the power of sin through a new and better covenant. Three times God uses the phrase “Behold, the days are coming” (31:27, 31, 38) to connect the new covenant promise with other promises. The new covenant will be the great picture of how Yahweh watches over his word to perform it, not just in judgment, but also in restoration (31:28; cf. 1:12). Even if the former generations warranted judgment for themselves and their offspring, the offspring need not taste these “sour grapes,” for God is making a way to be reconciled to him (31:29). Anyone who refuses this promise does not die for his parents’ sins, but for his own refusal to be reconciled (31:30).
That way of reconciliation will be a new and better covenant (31:31–34). This covenant has amazing new qualities, but it also is similar to the old covenant given at Mt. Sinai. It will still be between Yahweh and his people, Israel and Judah (31:31; although, as we will see, “Israel” is expanded in the NT to include the gentiles; cf. Gal 3:28–29; 6:16). The purpose will still be covenantal communion, where they enjoy exclusive rights to each other and intimacy with each other, like in a marriage: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33; cf. Song 6:3). God’s people will still express their love and fidelity to Yahweh through the keeping of his law (Jer 31:33).
What then is new about the new covenant? The newness consists in Yahweh’s saving power penetrating to the depths of his people’s hearts, such that they now know him and love him as they ought. The law is no longer external to them, engraved on tablets of stone, while their hearts are engraved with sin (17:1). Instead, Yahweh will write his law on their hearts, so that they will whole-heartedly seek him and obey him (24:7; 29:13–14; 32:40). God intends to eliminate the paradox of people who outwardly are his worshipers but who inwardly do not know him (cf. the problem of hypocrisy in 7:1–8:3). Now all his people will know him, from the least to the greatest (31:34). Yahweh will clear the way for sweet, unending covenant fellowship by dealing not only with the power of sin, but also with its guilt, for he “will forgive their iniquity, and . . . will remember their sin no more” (31:34). The author of the epistle to the Hebrews calls all these new developments the “better promises” of the new covenant that Jesus introduced (Heb 8:6; cf. 2Cor 3:9).
In Jeremiah 31:35–37, Yahweh promises that this commitment to true fellowship with his people will stand forever, notwithstanding their sin. As surely as God remains committed to his creation, so certainly will he preserve Israel, even through exile. By re-emphasizing his commitment to his people, God clarifies that even Israel’s sin cannot keep him from enacting his solemn promises to Abraham long ago. Israel has a future, but only because God will take the initiative to keep his ancient commitment to them (cf. Mic 7:20; Luke 1:72–73).
The new covenant promise will coincide with Yahweh restoring Jerusalem (Jer 31:38–40; cf. 30:18; 31:4). What was previously defiled (the valley of dead bodies) will now become sacred and holy (31:40). The city will also surpass its former dimensions (31:39), something that the NT takes to an entirely new level when it points to the heavenly Jerusalem, which spans the entire new creation, as the fulfillment of this promise (Heb 12:22; Rev 21:2, 16). Even now Christ reigns in this heavenly city, which will never be overthrown (Jer 31:40).
A Sign-Act of Hope: A Field Purchased (32:1–44)
32:1–15 As a pledge of these promises, Yahweh has Jeremiah perform a seemingly irrational act. While the Babylonians are besieging Jerusalem and Jeremiah himself is in prison (32:2), Jeremiah’s uncle Hanamel (who apparently had taken refuge in the city) comes to Jeremiah with the proposal that Jeremiah buy a field in Anathoth (32:8). With the Babylonians in control of this land and the fall of Jerusalem imminent, no one would make such a purchase! But Jeremiah buys it at Yahweh’s command and orders that the official documents be stored so that they may last a long time (32:9–14). Then, Jeremiah gives Yahweh’s interpretation of this purchase: it is a foretaste of Judah’s future in the land, when again they will buy houses, fields, and vineyards (32:15). In particular, Jeremiah buys land that is his inheritance (32:8 says he has “the right of possession and redemption”; cf. Ruth 4:4), showing that Yahweh will continue to honor his land promise to Abraham (Gen 12:7). In the same way, faith lays hold on the promise of God’s intervention in the future, even when walking by faith seems irrational to the eyes of the world (Heb 11:1, 38).
32:16–25 Jeremiah still struggles to reconcile the present grim reality with the hopeful promise of a future in the land. Even if Yahweh is a God of great wonders (32:17–22), how can there be a future for a people that has no future (32:23–25)?
32:26–44 In response, Yahweh turns the premise of Jeremiah’s question upside down. Jeremiah assumes that the present destruction ensures that Judah has no future. But Yahweh shows that his faithfulness to his word to destroy (32:28–35) serves as a guarantees that he will be faithful to his word to restore (32:42; cf. 31:28).15 Because Yahweh is an integrous God, he will make a way for his people to come back and dwell safely in the land (32:37). He will wholeheartedly delight in doing them good (32:41; cf. Deut 30:9), surpassing his will to do them harm (cf. Deut 28:63). Truly, nothing is too hard for him (Jer 32:27).
The Reversal of All the Evil of Exile (33:1–26)
33:1–13 This extraordinary oracle also comes to Jeremiah when he is imprisoned in Jerusalem, when Jerusalem itself is surrounded by the Babylonians (cf. 32:1–2). One by one, Yahweh promises to reverse the seemingly irreversible realities of sin and judgment. Formerly, Jeremiah was forbidden to call on Yahweh, for Yahweh would not answer him (7:16). Now, Yahweh encourages him to call and promises that he will answer (33:3). Yahweh will heal the “unhealable” devastation on the land (33:6; cf. 9:10–11). He will cleanse the iniquity that they could not cleanse themselves (33:8; cf. 2:22). They who brought reproaches on Yahweh’s name will again be for praise and glory (33:9; cf. 13:11). Yahweh silenced the voices of mirth and gladness, but they will be heard again (33:10–11; cf. 16:9). The flock of Israel, once scattered, will once again dwell in peace on the hills (33:12–13; cf. 10:21). Yahweh sums up all this grace in the words, “I will restore your fortunes” (33:7; cf. 30:3, 18). In this way, Yahweh promises that Christ will restore all that our sins have destroyed, even the seemingly irreversible losses (Joel 2:25; Rev 21:4).
33:14–26 This unit continues the theme of reversal. Yahweh especially promises to restore the lines of Levi and David, the two families of Israel who had special promises given to them. Levi will never lack a man as priest, nor David a man as king. This promise is especially striking in the case of David, for Yahweh had said that Coniah would have none of “seed” on the “throne” (22:30). Now Yahweh promises not to reject the “seed” of David, but to re-establish him on this “throne” (33:17, 26). No more will Nebuchadnezzar and other pagan kings be Yahweh’s “servants” (25:9); instead, David’s line will again enjoy this title (33:21).
But this promise is more than a mere restoration of “the good old days.” Both the house of David and of Levi will have abundant seed (33:22), such that these houses will become as abundant as Israel itself (note the language of “host of heaven” and “sands of the sea” in 33:22 and Gen 22:17). Yahweh even takes the title of “Yahweh our righteousness,” which he had previously ascribed to the righteous branch (or individual offshoot) of the line of David in 23:5–6, and now ascribes it to all Jerusalem (33:16). The implication is that all the people will have the priestly and royal character of the coming messianic priest-king. In the new covenant, therefore, we find that all Christians are a “royal priesthood” (1Pet 2:9; Rev 1:6), who offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God (1Pet 2:5), and who reign forever with Christ as the heirs of David (2Cor 6:18; Rev 3:21; 21:7).
Excursus on the Restoration as Yahweh’s Decisive Solution to Sin
Before leaving Jeremiah’s book of comfort, it is encouraging to reflect on how these restoration promises provide a satisfying answer to all the problems raised in the first half of the book.
God’s people have deep problems in their hearts. Judah is a stupid people (4:22) that does not know God (5:4–5; 8:7; 9:3) and is full of falsehood (5:2; 8:5; 9:5). How can they ever know him? Answer: Yahweh will write his Law on their hearts (31:33) and give them a heart to know him (24:7). Judah’s will is enslaved to sin. How can they ever repent and return to God when it has been demonstrated that they are completely unable to repent? (2:25; 6:10; 7:27–28; 18:11–12). Answer: Yahweh will give them new hearts that will return to him whole-heartedly (3:22; 24:7). He will put the fear of him in their hearts so that they will never turn from him (32:39–40).
There are problems in God’s covenant relationship with his people. Judah has amassed a tremendous amount of guilt before God: idolatry (2:20–25), oppression (2:34), child sacrifice (7:31), hypocrisy (7:9–10), and wicked rulers (2:8; 21:11–22:30). How can she ever be forgiven? Will God be angry forever? Answer: God will initiate the reconciliation with his people and graciously forgive all their sin (31:34; 33:8). They shall again be his people, and he will be their God (30:22; 31:33; 32:38).
Finally, there are problems resulting from the consequences of sin. How can Judah and Israel, who have been divided so long and who are scattered throughout the world, ever be reunited as one people? How can David and Levi, who seem permanently removed from their posts, ever resume their offices? How can the pain and grief that has silenced all joyful sounds ever give way to gladness again? Answer: Yahweh has the power to resurrect even things that seem irreversibly lost.
The new covenant is Yahweh’s decisive solution to sin and its consequences. It is such a perfect solution that the new covenant will be everlasting (32:40), never surpassed by anything greater. Sin will never get the upper hand again, and Yahweh’s people will never face judgment again (31:40; 32:40).
Excursus on the Timing of Jeremiah’s Restoration
When are all of these restoration promises fulfilled? We recall that all God’s promises find their fulfillment in Christ (2Cor 1:20), and that Christ’s kingdom comes in two stages (the “already” and the “not yet”). First, Jesus established the kingdom through his blood (Luke 22:20), and one day he will come to consummate it at his return (1Pet 5:10). Christ’s death and resurrection thus mark the end of exile and the commencement of God’s restoration of his people, as promised in all the prophets.16
All of Jeremiah’s restoration promises find their fulfillment in Christ’s work. But Christ’s work unfolds in an already-not yet pattern, and so we see some promises fulfilled already, but others we still anticipate (Heb 2:8). For example, the new covenant has begun through the blood shed on the cross (Luke 22:20; Heb 12:24), and the old covenant is now obsolete (Eph 2:15; Heb 8:13). Yet there are still some who are members of the new covenant outwardly, but who do not know Yahweh (Rom 11:20–21; 1Jn 2:19; cf. Jer 31:34). Jesus has returned to the heavenly Zion in his resurrected body (Heb 9:12), but we remain exiles and sojourners (1Pet 2:11). We have received new, circumcised hearts to know and love God, and we can now genuinely repent (Acts 3:26; Rom 2:29), but our hearts are not yet perfected in holiness (1Jn 1:8). God has begun to reconcile the nations to himself (Jer 12:14–17), but many of his elect have yet to repent. All of Jeremiah’s promises fit this already-not yet fulfillment scheme, and the NT is our infallible guide for knowing what has already been achieved, and what we still should anticipate.
The NT also helps us understand what counts as the fulfillment of God’s promises. For example, the “land” that God’s people inherit turns out to be the new heavens and the new earth instead of the land of Israel (Heb 11:16; 1Pet 1:4; 2Pet 3:13); and the “Israel and Judah” who receive the new covenant include not just believing offspring of Abraham but also gentiles who believe and are reckoned as “Israel” (Rom 4:11; Gal 3:29; 6:15–16). Sometimes the fulfillment of prophecy is surprising! (For more on a Christ-centered reading of Jeremiah, see the Introduction: How Should We Interpret the Book of Jeremiah?)
The Outworking of Jeremiah’s Words in History (34:1–45:5)
Jeremiah has now prophesied the fall and restoration of God’s people. The next chapters show Jeremiah’s words working out in history. Jeremiah illustrates the sin that made judgment necessary (e.g., chs. 34 and 36) and narrates the fall of Jerusalem and its aftermath (chs. 39–44). A key theme throughout is the people’s inability to listen to God’s word through his prophet. Kings Jehoiakim and Zedekiah both refused to listen, and even after Yahweh’s severe judgment, the people remained unable to hear, and Jeremiah suffered repeatedly as a result. However, a subtle theme of encouragement runs throughout: a tiny minority of people did listen, hinting that Yahweh was raising up a faithful remnant. A new Israel will emerge from old Israel.
Zedekiah’s Fickle Heart Contrasted with the Rechabites’ Steadfastness (34:1–35:19)
Judah’s sin brought about God’s judgment. But the portraits of Zedekiah and Jehoiakim in chapters 34–38 show how sin can take a variety of forms. King Jehoiakim is defiant and audacious against Yahweh. King Zedekiah is fickle and wishy-washy. And both lacked the key virtue of repentance; both refused to hear and obey Yahweh’s word.
34:1–22 Although Zedekiah reigned after Jehoiakim, he appears first in chapter 34. After Jeremiah declares the coming judgment to Zedekiah (34:1–7), this chapter centers on an incident involving the release of some Jewish slaves. In the law he gave at Sinai, Yahweh addresses the possibility of individual Israelites falling again into slavery (perhaps because of unpaid debts). Every seven years, all such slaves are to be released at no cost (Exod 21:2; Deut 15:12). Yahweh did not redeem his people from slavery in Egypt only for them to become slaves of one another! King Zedekiah acted upon this law by issuing a proclamation of release (Jer 34:8). The people obeyed and set the slaves free (34:10). But then the people “repented” of their repentance by taking their former slaves back again into bondage (34:11)! Thus, Yahweh proclaims judgment against them: he will give “liberty” to those who failed to give liberty to others—they are now “free” to go to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine (34:17)!
Yahweh then explains to Zedekiah in particular that this sin is the reason why Yahweh is changing his plans for him. He will no longer have a good burial (34:5), but rather a death in exile (34:21; cf. how 18:1–10 explains that Yahweh can change his stated purposes). Half-hearted obedience is not obedience at all. True obedience does not make a show of faithfulness, only to revert back to sin.
35:1–19 In contrast to Zedekiah and his fickleness, Jeremiah depicts the longstanding faithfulness of the Rechabites. About 240 years prior to the events in Jeremiah 35, we hear of Jehonadab (an alternate spelling of Jonadab) the son of Rechab, who was an ally of Jehu in his coup (2Kgs 10:15). This same Jonadab made a special command to his family, that none of them should drink wine, nor should they build houses or engage in agriculture (Jer 35:6–7). When Jeremiah tells them to drink wine, they refuse out of faithfulness to their forefather’s command, which they still remember hundreds of years later!
This story commends the Rechabites, who receive a promise of an unending future before Yahweh, notwithstanding the coming disaster (35:18–19; cf. 33:17–18). But the ultimate purpose of the story is to condemn the Judeans (35:12–17). The logic is “how much more”: if this tribe (who are gentiles, deriving from the Kenites, a non-Israelite people who dwelt in the land of Canaan prior to Israel; see Gen 15:19; 1Chr 2:55) obeyed their father’s command for hundreds of years, then how much more should Judah have obeyed the voice of “Yahweh, the God of hosts, the God of Israel” (Jer 35:17)? If this tribe obeyed their father, who spoke once to them long ago, then how much more should Judah have obeyed Yahweh, who sent his prophets to them constantly to call them back to his law (35:15)?
The “insiders” (Judeans) are faithless, but the “outsiders” (Rechabites) are faithful. This pattern will appear again in the section to come, with important implications for the new covenant.
Jehoiakim’s Rebellious Heart Contrasted with Ebed-Melech’s Faithfulness (36:1–38:28)
36:1–32 Now we see another, more flagrant side of Judah’s sin, as well as the power and endurance of Scripture. The narrative begins with Yahweh’s mercy: he commissions a scroll containing his oracles to Jeremiah. The scroll’s purpose is to stir Judah to repentance (36:2–3), and it has the ability to go places where Jeremiah cannot go. First, it goes in the hand of Baruch (Jeremiah’s scribal assistant) to the temple, where Baruch reads it (36:4–10). The scroll finds a sympathetic listener in Micaiah, of the family of Shaphan. Micaiah then has Baruch read the scroll again in the presence of the officials (36:11–19). This reading provokes great fear among the officials, who then urge Baruch to hide while one of them brings the scroll to the king and reads it to him.
The response of the king is audacious. Instead of fearing the wrath of Yahweh, King Jehoiakim tears the scroll as it is read and throws each piece in the fire (36:20–26). The word for “cut” in 36:23 is the same as the word for “tear” in 36:24 (qāraʿ). Instead of tearing their garments in repentance and grief as Josiah did when he heard about Yahweh’s wrath (2Kgs 22:11), Jehoiakim tears the scroll. Nothing could more powerfully symbolize Jehoiakim’s hard-hearted rejection of Yahweh and his Word.
But the Word of Yahweh stands forever. Immediately after Jehoiakim destroys the scroll, Yahweh commissions Jeremiah to write another scroll with all the same words on it. However, he also adds a new judgment concerning Jehoiakim: his offspring will not rule, and his dead body will be cast out to exposure and shame (Jer 36:30–31; cf. 22:19, 30). Notwithstanding Jehoiakim’s rebellion, Yahweh will have the last word (Isa 40:8; 55:11). And just as God’s Word wins the victory over hardened rebels like Jehoiakim, so will he triumph on the last day through Jesus, the Word of God and judge of all (Rev 19:13).
37:1–38:28 The fulfillment of the words of judgment against Jehoiakim quickly comes about (37:1), and the narrative moves on to the reign of Zedekiah. Zedekiah receives repeated words from Yahweh through Jeremiah, and on the surface, Zedekiah gives the impression of being quite different from Jehoiakim. Zedekiah is sympathetic to Jeremiah, he asks him to intercede for the people (37:3), he provides him with bread (37:21), and he commands Ebed-melech to rescue him (38:10). But, just like the slaves incident in chapter 34, these actions are only a superficial show of support.
When Jeremiah is wrongly imprisoned (37:11–15), Zedekiah does nothing (37:16). When powerful officials urge that Jeremiah be killed (38:1–4), Zedekiah does nothing (38:5). When Jeremiah gives him urgent counsel from Yahweh, commanding him to surrender to the king of Babylon so that Zedekiah and his family would live (38:14–18), Zedekiah refuses out of fear (38:19). Much like Saul, who wished to appear faithful to Yahweh while not actually obeying him, Zedekiah’s true master is his fear of other people.
The real hero in these two chapters is an outsider, Ebed-melech the Ethiopian. Like the Rechabites, Ebed-melech is faithful where the Judeans are faithless. When Jeremiah’s enemies throw him into a cistern to die, Ebed-melech takes the initiative to rescue Jeremiah and lift him out (38:8–13). Yahweh later commends Ebed-melech’s faith and promises him his life “as a prize of war” (39:15–18). This Ethiopian’s faith coincides with other faithful gentiles (e.g., the Rechabites, or Nebuzaradan in 40:1–5) who show that the faithful remnant that honors Yahweh’s Word will include not only Judeans like Baruch and the house of Shaphan, but also gentiles (cf. another Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:27). The outsiders have become insiders because of their faith and their honoring of Yahweh’s Word (Rom 4:11; Eph 3:6), and the insiders have become outsiders by their disobedience.
Zedekiah pictures Pilate, who capitulates to the crowd instead of standing for justice (Matt 27:15–24). Jeremiah’s sinking into the mud is a kind of death (cf. Ps 40:2), but just as the scroll re-emerged after it was burned (Jer 36:32), Jeremiah re-emerges as if from the grave. Zedekiah, however, will sink into the mud of death with none to rescue him (38:22).
Judgment’s Inability to Change Stubborn Hearts (39:1–44:30)
Tragically, Zedekiah and all Judah do not repent, and chapters 39–44 now show a further tragedy: not just the fall of Jerusalem (ch. 39), but also a steady flow of atrocities committed by the remnant of Judah after the Babylonian conquest. Just as the stories about Zedekiah and Jehoiakim (chs. 34–38) provided case studies about the power of sin, so this narrative section provides one more sustained case study. This case study features the sinful remnant of Judah and illustrates that even Yahweh’s final covenant curse cannot produce true repentance.
39:1–10 In rapid strokes we hear of an eighteen-month siege, Jerusalem’s fall, and the capture of Zedekiah. As prophesied in 1:15, the Babylonian officials established their authority over the city by sitting at the city gates (39:3). Zedekiah’s household received the dire punishment Jeremiah had warned would happen if Zedekiah did not surrender (39:6; cf. 38:23), and the king’s palace and the city walls were destroyed (39:8).
39:11–40:6 The negative outcome for Zedekiah and the nobles of Jerusalem contrasts with several parties. First, the poor of the land receive vineyards and fields from the Babylonians (39:10). It is ironic that the poor had to wait to receive this positive treatment from pagan conquerors, for they did not receive mercy from the kings of Judah (cf. 22:13; 34:16).
Second, Jeremiah receives a much more positive treatment from Babylon than from his own people. Nebuchadnezzar gave special orders for his good treatment (39:12), the Babylonians released him from prison (39:14), and Nebuzaradan (the captain of the Babylonian guard) gave him the free choice to go to Babylon or to remain in the land (40:4–5), a choice that the Judean remnant will later deny to Jeremiah (43:6). Nebuzaradan’s speech is filled with astonishing references to Yahweh. He clearly understands that Jerusalem fell because of Judah’s sin, and he shows generosity to Yahweh’s prophet (40:2–6). A gentile has understood the prophet better than the prophet’s own people!
Third, Ebed-melech received Yahweh’s assurance that Yahweh will save him and preserve his life, notwithstanding the fall of the city (39:15–18).
All three of these unexpected exaltations are hints of Yahweh’s ultimate purpose to lift up the lowly and bring low the proud. But they are only hints: the remnant in the land will continue to experience deprivation, Jeremiah will again be captured, and Ebed-melech is only escaping with his life.
40:7–12 Before the Babylonians depart, the king of Babylon appoints Gedaliah as governor over the land (40:7). At this point, Yahweh’s directive to his people shifts. Previously, they were commanded to show their submission to the king of Babylon by surrendering to him (21:9). Now the people must obey the king of Babylon by remaining in the land (40:9). For those who remain, Yahweh has provided another way to be a “good fig” (cf. 24:4–7). If they do remain in the land, then Gedaliah promises that “it will be well with [them],” a phrase that invokes the covenant blessings of Deuteronomy (Deut 5:6; 6:3; 12:28; etc.). Gedaliah upholds the teaching of Jeremiah, recognizing that Nebuchadnezzar is now Yahweh’s appointed ruler (or “servant”; cf. Jer 27:6), and therefore Yahweh’s blessing can only be found in serving him. Indeed, the people who remained in the land under Gedaliah began to enjoy the land’s blessings once more as they harvested “wine and summer fruits in great abundance” (40:12).
40:13–41:18 However, this time of prosperity was very short-lived. Even though Jonathan the son of Kareah warned Gedaliah of a plot against him, Gedaliah was assassinated by Ishmael the son of Nethaniah (40:13–41:3). Strikingly, the assassin Ishmael is “of the royal family” (lit., “of the seed of the kingship”; 41:1). In line with Jehoiakim and Zedekiah, the sons of David have become Yahweh’s enemies once more. Ishmael goes further even than Saul, who could not accept that Yahweh had barred his line from the throne. Saul attempted to kill God’s rightful ruler (David) but failed. Ishmael actually assassinates the rightful ruler of the land.17
Things spiral downward from here. First, Ishmael massacres still more innocent people and takes captive the rest of the Judean remnant (41:4–10). Jonathan the son of Kareah then rescues these captives from Ishmael, but Ishmael escapes justice (41:11–18).
42:1–43:7 Next, there is the fearful decision to go to Egypt. Jonathan the son of Kareah has appeared positively to this point. He had warned Gedaliah of Ishmael’s plot (40:14) and rescued the people from Ishmael’s power (41:11–12). When the people found themselves in Jonathan’s power, they rejoiced (41:13). But now Jonathan was confronted with a difficult decision: Ishmael had murdered not only Gedaliah but also the Babylonian garrison at Mizpah (41:3). A Babylonian reprisal was certainly on its way, and people were understandably afraid of what would happen to them when the Babylonians would return (41:18).
And so, Jonathan makes an apparently good decision: he decides to appeal to Jeremiah for an oracle from Yahweh about what they should do (42:1–3). He and the other leaders even add their solemn promise to obey whatever Yahweh will tell them to do (42:5–6), a promise that has unsettling similarities to the people’s empty pledge to obey Yahweh at Mt. Sinai (Exod 24:3).
After ten days, Yahweh does send his word to Jeremiah. The word is a direct challenge to their fears: Yahweh requires them to stay in the land, and he promises to “build” and to “plant” them if they will stay (Jer 42:10). In recalling this language of restoration from the book’s theme verse (1:10), Yahweh is again offering them the privilege of becoming “good figs” whose experience in the land will be lifegiving and redemptive, just like exiles in Babylon (29:5). They also would become sharers of Yahweh’s promise to Jeremiah: Yahweh promises that he will be with them to deliver them (42:11; cf. 1:8, 19). However, they must trust Yahweh’s protection and not fear the king of Babylon. Do they really believe that Yahweh will not let the king of Babylon harm them (42:11)?
Yahweh utters dire consequences for them if they do not remain in the land but flee to Egypt. The sword, pestilence, and famine (the classic trio of death that came upon Jerusalem; cf. 14:12) will overtake them in Egypt, and they will have no survivor (42:16–17). Strikingly, Jeremiah’s oracle to the remnant, which began as a choice, ends as a condemnation for choosing Egypt (42:21–22). Clearly, the choice has already been made.
The people’s response in 43:1–7 indicates that their request to Jeremiah was a mere formality. They simply wanted Yahweh to approve of their plans. When confronted with a message they did not want, they accuse Jeremiah of lying to them, and they accuse Baruch of urging Jeremiah to do it. In the face of the accusation that Jeremiah and Baruch are making up their message, the narrator ironically says that the people “did not obey the voice of Yahweh” (not the voice of Jeremiah or Baruch; 43:7).
In their disobedience, the leaders force Jeremiah and Baruch, along with all the remnant, to come with them to Egypt. Their arrival in the land of Egypt in 43:7 poignantly recalls earlier Scriptures: they have now returned to the place where Yahweh said they should never return (Deut 17:16), and if they did, it would only be as the ultimate curse of the covenant (Deut 28:68). It is the place of their original bondage. Indeed, their decision to go there powerfully illustrates that in the millennium since their ancestors left Egypt, the people of Israel have never escaped their true bondage, which is to sin.
43:8–13 As the Judean remnant arrives in Tahpanhes (northeastern Egypt), they no doubt think themselves quite safe from Nebuchadnezzar and his army. But Yahweh’s next oracle through Jeremiah indicates that the opposite is the case. Yahweh now threatens that the king of Babylon will conquer Egypt, destroy Egyptian temples, and carry off the gods of Egypt. Ironically, staying in the land of Canaan would have been safer than fleeing to Egypt.
44:1–30 After the murder of Gedaliah and the fearful decision to flee to Egypt, a third and final sin completes the dreadful portrait of the remnant in Egypt. Yahweh sends a final oracle to the remnant, in which he confronts them about their ongoing idolatry (44:1–10). After all that has happened to Judah because of their idolatry, even in Egypt they are still devoted to idol worship. Yahweh thus promises that judgment will find them out even there (44:11–14). They may have escaped the judgment on Jerusalem, but they will not escape this judgment.
The people’s answer to this last oracle is appalling. While Jonathan the son of Kareah at least pretended to listen to Jeremiah, the people now drop all pretense of listening: “we will not listen to you,” they say (44:16). They then show the deceptive power of sin by articulating a counter-narrative to Jeremiah. Yahweh had said that their worship of idols led to the fall of Jerusalem. The people now say that everything was going fine until they stopped worshiping the queen of heaven (44:17–18). One of the strongest allures of idols—both in the ancient world and today—is the fear of what might happen to us if we cease worshiping them.
Yahweh has the last word with the Judean refugees. He reiterates that Jerusalem fell for their idolatry (44:20–23) and then decrees that their unrepentance has ensured their condemnation as “bad figs” (cf. 24:8–10). His words now stand against them for harm (44:29). No matter where they flee, their sin will certainly find them out.
The narrative of Jeremiah’s life now comes to an end. Scripture speaks nothing more about the rest of Jeremiah’s life or his death. But from chapters 37–44 we see that his final days were truly a via dolorosa, a “sorrowful way.” His audience, the remnant of Judah, increasingly manifested their true identity as hardened rebels. And although Jeremiah was faithful to Yahweh to the end, he still was numbered with the transgressors and made his grave with the wicked (Isa 53:9, 12). As one who died outside of the land among apostates, Jeremiah’s end recalls Moses’s death (Deut 34:5–8)18 and anticipates Jesus’s own death outside the camp (Heb 13:12–13). With respect to the remnant of Judah, such a torrent of sin (even after severe punishment!) and hardness of heart make a strong final plea to us that nothing short of a new beginning—a new and better covenant—will ever overcome the bondage to sin.
A Word of Stern Encouragement to Baruch (45:1–5)
A brief word of rebuke to Baruch follows, which shows how pride can have great aspirations even in a disaster. Baruch apparently sought great things for himself (45:5). Such glory-seeking was unsuitable for the time of Judah’s demise (and indeed, during the demise of all flesh). Yet Yahweh shows his grace to Baruch: instead of his pride causing him to share in the downfall of Judah, Yahweh will give him his life as a prize of war. He will be a survivor with Ebed-melech and other faithful ones (21:9; 39:18) and thus make a link to the truly “great thing” God will eventually do in the new covenant.
The Plucking Up and Tearing Down of the Nations (46:1–51:64)
To this point, Yahweh’s judgment has focused almost exclusively on Judah. Now God shows his impartiality, and the judgment expands to the nations. In these chapters, Jeremiah fulfills his call to be the destroyer and overthrower of nations and kingdoms (1:10). Here we see him giving all the nations the cup of God’s wrath (cf. 25:15). But for some nations, there will be hints of restoration.
The commentary strategy will shift for chapters 46–49. Instead of moving sequentially, we will look at key themes in the oracles against Egypt, Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Damascus, Kedar, and Elam. Then we will separately consider the climactic oracle against Babylon (chs. 50–51).
46:1–49:39 The oracles against the nations are almost entirely words of judgment. Yahweh threatens imminent disaster on all the nations next to Judah (Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Damascus, and Kedar), as well as those more distant (Egypt and Elam). The disaster is just like what befell Judah: there is no escape, even for the mighty (46:6; 48:43–44). Yahweh repeats much of the language that he used to describe Judah’s fall: the nations will fall to a foe from the north (47:2; cf. 1:14); sounds of joy will cease (48:33; cf. 16:9); these lands will become a horror, a taunt, and a waste (49:13; cf. 26:6; 42:18); anguish will seize them like a woman in labor (49:22, 24; cf. 6:24); and terror will be on every side (49:29; cf. 6:25). Just as Judah’s ultimate curse was exile, the nations will also face exile (46:19; 48:11). Even their gods will be exiled (48:7; 49:3). This shared language underscores that God shows no partiality but renders just judgment to all (Rom 2:11).
The reasons for judgment are also similar. In the case of both Judah and the nations, God puts to shame their empty boasts in might (Jer 46:8, 17; 48:14, 29–30) and wisdom (49:7; cf. 9:23). He will expose what a false hope their fortifications (49:16) and their gods are (48:13). However, in the case of Judah, Yahweh also emphasizes their failure to keep his covenant; he does not mention this factor in the case of the nations, who were not parties of the covenant at Sinai.
Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army are God’s agents of justice against the nations, just as they were for Judah (46:13; 49:28). Thus, the destroying work of Babylon is called the “work of Yahweh” (48:10). Babylon’s power reflects Yahweh’s unrivaled supremacy (46:10, 18; 49:19). Every nation will be subject to him (cf. Phil 2:10).
All that the nations can do in response to these oracles is to mourn and lament (48:17, 20; 49:3) and to flee in terror (48:6, 28). However, in a few cases, Yahweh does leave a hint of restoration. He will restore the fortunes of a few nations (48:47; 49:6, 39) and will cause Egypt to be inhabited again after its destruction (46:26). These hints of future hope make us realize that the pictures of total annihilation in the judgment oracles (e.g., 47:4; 49:13) must be qualified: just as there was a faithful remnant of Judah, there will be a remnant of the nations as well. And as we know from elsewhere in Jeremiah, the nations will eventually share in the full restoration hopes that Judah will one day enjoy (3:17; 12:14–17; 16:19). Jesus is the savior not just of the Jews, but of the gentiles as well (Luke 2:32; Rom 3:29; Eph 3:6).
50:1–51:64 The oracle against Babylon occupies a special place in the oracles against the nations. It is the most intense of all the judgment oracles, using approximately as many words as all the oracles against the other nations combined. It also extends no hope to Babylon. Babylon will suffer unmitigated wrath from Yahweh for their sins. Finally, Yahweh seals the words against Babylon with a sign-act by Seraiah (perhaps the brother of Baruch), a unique feature found only in this oracle (51:59–64).
From one point of view, Babylon was Yahweh’s executioner, the agent of his justice. However, unlike normal executioners who are commissioned by the state and who act knowingly in their commission, Babylon was apparently an unwitting agent of Yahweh. From their perspective, they were acting as all ancient Near Eastern empires did, attempting to grab power and spoil from the weaker nations around them as a demonstration of the supremacy of their gods. Therefore, even though Yahweh used Babylon to accomplish his purposes against Judah and the other nations, Yahweh reserves especially dire consequences for Babylon for her rapacious lust and hideous pride (50:29). Yahweh will particularly avenge the wrong done to himself when Babylon destroyed his temple (50:28; 51:11).
First, Babylon’s gods, who seemed invincible, will be utterly shamed (50:2; 51:17–18, 44, 47). In their place, Yahweh will stand forth as the supreme and only true God (50:44; 51:19). His plans alone will triumph (51:12).
Babylon will experience eye-for-eye justice; “do to her as she has done” is Yahweh’s rallying cry (50:15, 29). Just as Babylon was the foe from the north against Judah and the other nations, so Yahweh will destroy Babylon itself with another foe from the north (the Medes under Cyrus, along with other fierce nations; 50:3, 9; 51:11, 28). The Babylonians rejoiced over Jerusalem’s fall, but they will be reduced to utter disgrace (50:11–12). They who were rich beyond all others shall become an utter desolation (50:13; 51:13). All their wise and mighty and rich men will be put to the sword (50:35–38). When the judgment comes, they will experience the same panic that they produced in others (50:43; cf. 6:24). This judgment will be permanent; Babylon will never be built up or inhabited again (50:26, 39; 51:26).
Surprisingly, much of the “oracle against Babylon” is actually an oracle about the restoration of Israel and Judah! The deliverance of God’s people will coincide with the fall of their enemies (50:4–5), for Yahweh is the avenger and redeemer of his people (50:34; 51:35–36). Babylon’s fall means his people’s vindication (51:10). They will get to see their enemies’ destruction (51:24). In the days of Babylon’s fall, God’s people will truly repent of their sin (50:5). Yahweh will then restore them back to their pasture (50:19; 51:45) and eliminate all sin from his people (50:20).
The destruction of Israel’s enemies is good news because it means the arrival of Yahweh’s justice. No longer will evil wreak havoc on the earth, for Babylon, the incarnation of evil, will be defeated once and for all. No longer will the sins of Babylon cry out for punishment, for Babylon will sink and rise no more, as certainly as the scroll of her punishments shall sink to the bottom of the Euphrates (51:63–64).
The intense language of the oracle against Babylon hints that it is about more than the literal fall of Babylon in 539 BC. In the New Testament, “Babylon” has become a cipher for all that is evil in the world. Like Babel in Genesis 11 (note: “Babel” and “Babylon” are the same in Hebrew), Babylon represents humanity in opposition to God, the “city of man” in Augustine’s language (cf. 1Pet 5:13). Thus, the fall of “Babylon” means the final defeat of everything that stands opposed to God: reprobate humanity, Satan, and his hosts (Rev 14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:2). Jesus accomplished this defeat through his death and resurrection (Col 2:15; Heb 2:14), but we still await the visible defeat of “Babylon” at Jesus’s return (Rev 19:11–21).
The Accomplishment of Judah’s Plucking Up and Tearing Down (52:1–34)
We are told that “the words of Jeremiah” are ended as of 51:64, but a final chapter remains in the book. Jeremiah 52 closely resembles 2 Kings 25 and serves a vital purpose in the book. In the conflict between Hananiah and Jeremiah in chapter 28, we saw Jeremiah vindicated as a true prophet because his prophecy about Hananiah’s untimely death came about (cf. Deut 18:22). This final chapter now vindicates Jeremiah’s entire prophecy about Judah’s destruction: it actually has happened. Zedekiah was captured and his sons were slaughtered (Jer 52:9–10). The Babylonians destroyed the city and burned the temple to the ground (52:12–13). They took all the temple vessels and put the priests to death (52:17–27).
If Yahweh’s wrath against his people is now complete, then this account is actually good news. For as the final four verses of the book suggest, if Yahweh has completed his work of “plucking up and tearing down,” then what now remains is for him “to build and to plant” (cf. 1:10). Jehoiachin’s rehabilitation out of prison is certainly not the restoration of David’s line to the throne; Jehoiachin was a mere courtier to the Babylonian king, Evil-merodach. But this slight upturn in his fate, where he is no longer in prison but is allowed to eat at the king’s table, suggests that the story is now, for the first time in the entire book of Jeremiah, set in a positive direction. An attentive reader will now join Simeon in waiting for the “consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25), a consolation that will come in Jesus, the son of Jehoiachin (Matt 1:12; Jehoiachin and “Jechoniah” are the same person).
However, as Ezra-Nehemiah demonstrates, even though Yahweh’s wrath did come climactically upon Jerusalem in the time of the exile, his wrath continued upon his people even after their return from Babylon (Neh 13:18; see the Introduction: How Should We Interpret the Book of Jeremiah?). Not until the death of the true Israel, Jesus Christ, is Yahweh’s wrath against his people completely exhausted and propitiated (Rom 3:25; Gal 3:13).
Jesus Christ brings the entire book of Jeremiah to a climax. In Jeremiah, God demonstrates the inability of the old covenant to overcome the power of sin. In God’s gracious and redemptive purpose, he ordained the chaos of judgment so that he might establish a new and better order. The wrecking ball needed to come first to clear away the old building, and in Jesus’s death, the old covenant order has come to an end (Eph 2:14–15; Heb 8:13). Now, through his resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit, a new building is going up in place of the old. Jesus has established the new and better covenant, which has better promises (Luke 22:20; 2Cor 3:6; Heb 8:6), including the promise that everyone who believes in him will be freed from the bondage of sin (Rom 6:14, 18). God has accomplished all that is necessary for permanent union and communion with his people!
Therefore, let us rejoice in having received so great a salvation. Through faith in Christ, we now have the joy of living in the new covenant. Let us walk in righteousness, with the very law of God written on our hearts!
Hafemann, Scott J. “Paul’s ‘Jeremiah’ Ministry in Reverse and the Reality of the New Covenant.” In Remapping Mission Discourse, Festschrift for Rev. George Kuruvila Chavanikamannil, edited by Simon Samuel and P.V. Joseph, 72–83. Dehradun/Delhi: NTC Publications and ISPCK, 2008.
–––. “The ‘Temple of the Spirit’ as the Inaugural Fulfillment of the New Covenant within the Corinthian Correspondence.” Ex Auditu 12 (1996): 29–42.
Hwang, Jerry. “The Missio Dei as an Integrative Motif in the Book of Jeremiah.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 23 (2013): 481–508.
Kidner, Derek. The Message of Jeremiah: Against Wind and Tide. Bible Speaks Today. Leicester, UK: InterVarsity Press, 1987.
McConville, J. G. “Jeremiah: Prophet and Book.” Tyndale Bulletin 42 (1991): 80–95.
–––. “Jeremiah: Theology Of.” In New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, 4:755–67. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997.
–––. Judgment and Promise: An Interpretation of the Book of Jeremiah. Leicester, UK: Apollos, 1993.
Patton, Matthew H. “From Judgment to Restoration.” TableTalk Magazine (blog), May 15, 2020. https://tabletalkmagazine.com/posts/judgment-unto-restoration-jeremiah-christ-and-us-2020-05/.
–––. “The End of Exile: The Old Testament as Cliffhanger.” TableTalk Magazine (blog). June 21, 2021. https://tabletalkmagazine.com/posts/the-end-of-exile/.
–––. Jeremiah. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament (ZECOT). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, forthcoming (2025 projected).
Ryken, Philip Graham. Jeremiah and Lamentations: From Sorrow to Hope. Preaching the Word. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001.
Shead, Andrew G. A Mouth Full of Fire: The Word of God in the Words of Jeremiah. New Studies in Biblical Theology 29. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2012.
Wright, Christopher J. H. “A Christian Approach to Old Testament Prophecy Concerning Israel.” In Jerusalem Past and Present in the Purposes of God, edited by Peter W. L. Walker, 2nd ed., 1–19. Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1994.
Yates, Gary. “Intertextuality and the Portrayal of Jeremiah the Prophet.” Bibliotheca Sacra 170 (2013): 286–303.
–––. “Narrative Parallelism and the ‘Jehoiakim Frame’: A Reading Strategy for Jeremiah 26–45.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48 (2005): 263–81.
–––. “New Exodus and No Exodus in Jeremiah 26–45: Promise and Warning to the Exiles in Babylon.” Tyndale Bulletin 57 (2006): 1–22.
Endnotes & Permissions
1. For a detailed exposition of Jeremiah from a Christian perspective, see my forthcoming commentary with Zondervan.
2. On Ezra 1:1 and Ezra-Nehemiah as a story of ongoing exile, see my “The End of Exile: The Old Testament as Cliffhanger,” TableTalk Magazine (blog), June 21, 2021, https://tabletalkmagazine.com/posts/the-end-of-exile/.
3. For more on this Christ-centered and church-focused reading of Jeremiah, see my “From Judgment to Restoration,” TableTalk Magazine (blog), May 15, 2020, https://tabletalkmagazine.com/posts/judgment-unto-restoration-jeremiah-christ-and-us-2020-05/.
4. Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, NTT (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 152.
5. For a helpful article surveying this question, see Christopher J. H. Wright, “A Christian Approach to Old Testament Prophecy Concerning Israel,” in Jerusalem Past and Present in the Purposes of God, ed. Peter W. L. Walker, 2nd ed. (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1994), 1–19.
6. J. G. McConville, Judgment and Promise: An Interpretation of the Book of Jeremiah (Leicester, UK: Apollos, 1993), 52–53.
7. Ichabod Spencer, A Pastor’s Sketches: Conversations with Anxious Souls Concerning the Way of Salvation (Vestavia Hills, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2006), 165.
8. David W. Pao, Acts and the Isaianic New Exodus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002); Rikki E. Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus and Mark, WUNT 2/88 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1997).
9. For an excellent discussion of this dynamic in biblical prophecy, see R. L. Pratt Jr., “Historical Contingencies and Biblical Predictions,” in The Way of Wisdom: Essays in Honor of Bruce K. Waltke, ed. J. I. Packer and Sven K. Soderlund (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 180–203.
10: For a full development of this argument, see Matthew H. Patton, Hope for a Tender Sprig: Jehoiachin in Biblical Theology, BBRSup 16 (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2017).
11. For the identification of these kingdoms, see John H. Walton, “The Four Kingdoms of Daniel,” JETS 29 (1986): 25–36.
12. Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 108, 157–59.
13. Matthew H. Patton, “The End of Exile: Jesus Inaugurates the Restoration,” TableTalk Magazine (blog), June 28, 2021, https://tabletalkmagazine.com/posts/the-end-of-exile-2/.
14. Even then, as the previous article notes, there is a sense in which exile continues and we still anticipate the fall of Babylon at Christ’s return (Rev 14:8; 16:19).
15. John Applegate, “‘Peace, Peace, When There Is No Peace’: Redactional Integration of Prophecy of Peace into the Judgement of Jeremiah,” in The Book of Jeremiah and Its Reception, ed. A. H. W. Curtis and T. Römer, BETL 128 (Louvain: Leuven University Press, 1997), 82.
16. Patton, “The End of Exile.”
17. Gary Yates, “New Exodus and No Exodus in Jeremiah 26–45: Promise and Warning to the Exiles in Babylon,” TynBul 57 (2006): 10.
18. Ibid., 9.
The text of Jeremiah, excluding all Bible quotations, is © 2023 by The Gospel Coalition. The Gospel Coalition (TGC) gives you permission to reproduce this work in its entirety, without any changes, in English for noncommercial distribution throughout the world. Crossway, the holder of the copyright to the ESV Bible text, grants permission to include the ESV quotations within this work, in English.
In addition, TGC gives you permission to faithfully translate the work into any other language, but you may not translate the English ESV Bible into another language. If you wish to include Bible quotations with the translated work, you will need to obtain permission from a publisher of a Bible translation in the same language.
All scripture quotations are taken from the ESV® Bible (the Holy Bible, English Standard Version®) copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. ESV Text Edition: 2016. All rights reserved. The ESV text may not be quoted in any publication made available to the public by a Creative Commons license. The ESV may not be translated into any other language. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, is adapted from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A
1:1 The words of Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, one of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, 2 to whom the word of the LORD came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. 3 It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah, the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month.
The Call of Jeremiah
4 Now the word of the LORD came to me, saying,
5 “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.”
6 Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” 7 But the LORD said to me,
“Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’;
for to all to whom I send you, you shall go,
and whatever I command you, you shall speak.
8 Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
declares the LORD.”
9 Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the LORD said to me,
“Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to break down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”
11 And the word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Jeremiah, what do you see?” And I said, “I see an almond1 branch.” 12 Then the LORD said to me, “You have seen well, for I am watching over my word to perform it.”
13 The word of the LORD came to me a second time, saying, “What do you see?” And I said, “I see a boiling pot, facing away from the north.” 14 Then the LORD said to me, “Out of the north disaster2 shall be let loose upon all the inhabitants of the land. 15 For behold, I am calling all the tribes of the kingdoms of the north, declares the LORD, and they shall come, and every one shall set his throne at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem, against all its walls all around and against all the cities of Judah. 16 And I will declare my judgments against them, for all their evil in forsaking me. They have made offerings to other gods and worshiped the works of their own hands. 17 But you, dress yourself for work;3 arise, and say to them everything that I command you. Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them. 18 And I, behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land. 19 They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the LORD, to deliver you.”
Almond sounds like the Hebrew for watching (compare verse 12)
The Hebrew word can mean evil, harm, or disaster, depending on the context; so throughout Jeremiah
Hebrew gird up your loins