Jeremiah exhibits many great themes that stress God’s judgment on covenant infidelity and worldwide sin, as well as God’s determination to restore an international people for himself through the establishing of a new covenant.
Jeremiah was a biblical theologian. He embraced and used truths found in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Hosea, the Psalms, and other scriptural passages. Thus, he stressed many of the great themes about God and his people found elsewhere in the Bible. At the same time, he was a creative theologian whom the Holy Spirit inspired to write fresh treatments of old themes and some ideas that were new when Jeremiah penned them. The older ideas he employed include the nature of God, Messiah, God’s covenant with Israel, human sinfulness and need of repentance, threat of judgment, and restoration. His chief unique contribution was his articulation of the new covenant between God and his people.
God and humanity. Jeremiah includes virtually every biblical teaching about the nature of God and human beings. He presents God as the sovereign one who calls and equips his servant with his holy word (Jer. 1:1–19). Jeremiah claims that God alone is a living God and that he alone made the world. All other so-called gods are mere idols (Jer. 10:1–16). This Creator God called Israel to a special relationship (chs. 2–6), gave her his holy word, and promised to bless her temple with his name and presence (Jer. 7:1–8:3).
God rules the present and the future (Jer. 1:4–16; 29:1–10), protects his chosen ones (Jer. 1:17–19; 29:11–14; 39:15–18; 45:1–5), and saves those who turn to him (Jer. 12:14–17). Jeremiah proclaims that God is absolutely trustworthy; he keeps his promises. Therefore, Jeremiah assures readers that when people repent and turn to God, his grace triumphs over sin and judgment.
Jeremiah’s view of human beings is grimly realistic. He claims that the human heart is sick and beyond curing by anyone but God (Jer. 17:9–10). He writes that the nations worship idols instead of their Creator (Jer. 10:1–16). Worse yet, he notes how Israel, the people with whom God made a special covenant (see below), sinned against him. They went after other gods (chs. 2–6), defiled the temple by their unwillingness to repent (Jer. 7:1–8:3; 26:1–11), and oppressed one another (Jer. 34:8–16).
Since Israel and the nations have sinned against God (Jer. 25:1–26), the Creator also becomes the Judge of every nation on the earth he created (chs. 46–51). God will not allow human sin to continue unchecked. Jeremiah warns that punishment is coming. Chapters 21–29 probably contain the most urgent messages of this type for Judah, and chapters 46–51 present the most straightforward warnings to the nations. Thus, Jeremiah contributes to the OT’s teaching about “the day of the Lord” (Jer. 4:5–12), a term that encompasses both judgments in history such as the fall of Jerusalem and transhistorical judgments like the final judgment.
Given this situation, the prophet asks people over 100 times to “turn around” or “repent.” He promises that when people turn from their sins and return to God they will receive forgiveness and healing. He firmly believes that God will renew a repenting people, and he mourns the lack of repentance in his day (Jer. 8:18–22). God comforts him with the knowledge that repentance and renewal would eventually come (Jer. 33:14–26).
Old covenant, Messiah, and new covenant. Like the other true prophets in the Bible, Jeremiah believed that God had made a covenant with Israel. Though no brief definition can do justice to the concept, the covenant between God and Israel in biblical context was a binding relational agreement between God and Israel, based on deeds done by God and promises made by God, which Israel accepted by faith in God, for the purpose of living for God as his unique people in the world.
This covenant was rooted in God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Genesis 12–50). It was based on God’s redemption of Israel from slavery in Egypt (Ex. 1:1–20:2). It included standards of living (Exodus 20–24) that the people who were called to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6) should uphold as they trusted God and lived for him. It included faith-based sacrifices (Leviticus 1–16) and prayers (Psalm 32; 51; etc.) to deal with the people’s sins. It included clear accountability for this kingdom of priests in the form of benefits (blessings) and consequences (curses) (Deuteronomy 27–28).
As time passed, God’s covenant with Israel incorporated God’s promise to David of an eternal kingdom (2 Samuel 7; 1 Chronicles 17). From this promise came the concept of a Messiah, which literally means “anointed one.” Jeremiah does not mention the Messiah as often as Isaiah, but the concept is not missing altogether. Jeremiah conceives of a time when God will “gather the remnant” of Israel and raise up “for David a righteous Branch” who will reign over the faithful ones (Jer. 23:3–5). When he comes, this King will be “our righteousness” (Jer. 23:6). In this way God’s eternal covenant with David will be kept fully at a time in the future that Jeremiah leaves unspecified (Jer. 32:14–25).
God established this covenant with all Israel, irrespective of faith in God on the part of many individuals. However, the only persons that God was pleased with and redeemed spiritually were persons like Jeremiah who placed their faith in God, which was demonstrated by obedience to his word (Hebrews 11). Such persons are part of the remnant that the Messiah will gather (Jer. 23:3–5). Sadly, as chapters 2–6 indicate, the nation of Israel had a long history of covenant breaking. Collectively they were not a faithful covenant partner, though Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and others proved that covenant faithfulness was possible through God’s grace.
God used Jeremiah to deliver the good news that in future days God would “make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jer. 31:31). This covenant would be different in one chief respect: the new covenant partners will not break the covenant, as most of the old partners did even though God was unwaveringly faithful (Jer. 31:32). Instead, the new covenant partners will have the word of God so ingrained in their hearts through God’s power that they will know and follow God all their lives (Jer. 31:33–34).
Thus, all the new covenant partners will be believers who are forgiven and empowered by God; he will “remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34). Hebrews 8:8–12 quotes Jeremiah 31:31–34 as evidence that the new covenant has come through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The coming of Jesus the Messiah fulfills God’s promises to Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets of a new faithful people of God in continuity with the old people of God.
There is no way to determine with any level of accuracy the first readers of the book of Jeremiah in its present state or the specific occasion that led to its being read by that audience. Most likely it was read by persons awaiting the end of Judah’s exile and the return of God’s people to the land.
Its purpose is clearer: Jeremiah and Baruch wished to leave behind a record of the tumultuous times in which they lived, God’s message for those times, and God’s message for the future of Israel and the nations.
Jeremiah lived during troubled times. He became a prophet during Josiah’s reign (640–609 B.C.). Josiah was the last faithful king in Judah’s history (2 Kings 22:1–23:27). His death (2 Kings 23:28–30) marked the beginning of the last years of the nation of Judah. Political, social, financial, moral, and spiritual decay led to the country’s demise within two short decades. Other prophets, such as Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah, also ministered to Judah during this time.
During Josiah’s era the world political scene shifted greatly. Assyria had been the dominant world power since the reign of its mightiest king, Tiglath-pileser III (745–727 B.C.), though Babylon, Egypt, and other nations had regularly challenged Assyria. In 612 B.C. the Babylonians conquered Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, an event described in the book of Nahum. Assyria rallied with the aid of Egypt, but Babylon completed its triumph over its ancient foe in 609 B.C., the same year Josiah was killed fighting Egypt.
Immediately after Josiah’s death Egypt dominated Judah’s political landscape because Babylon could not yet consolidate all the territory that had been under Assyrian servitude. Unsatisfied to leave Jehoahaz on the throne, the Egyptians replaced him with Jehoiakim in 609 B.C. (2 Kings 23:31–35). Babylon marched south by 605 B.C., however, and Jehoiakim stayed in power only by shifting his allegiance from Egypt to Babylon. That year Babylon took its first group of exiles from Judah. Daniel and his friends were among the persons removed (Dan. 1:1–7). Jehoiakim rebelled against Babylon, but died in 598 B.C. before he could suffer the consequences of his actions (2 Kings 24:1–7). His successor, Jehoiachin, who reigned for only three months in 598–597 B.C., was left to feel the Babylonians’ wrath. Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar led his army to Jerusalem, deposed Jehoiachin, and placed Zedekiah on the throne (2 Kings 24:8–17). Babylon again took captives (2 Kings 24:16). Ezekiel was part of this group of exiles (Ezek. 1:1–3).
Zedekiah’s reign (597–586 B.C.) was marked by decline, intrigue, indecision, and ultimately defeat. Judah aligned itself with nations committed to throwing off the Babylonian yoke (Jer. 27:1–15) while paying lip service to Nebuchadnezzar. Such a policy could not succeed for long. Eventually Zedekiah’s rebellion became pronounced (2 Kings 24:20). In response, Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah, laid siege to Jerusalem, and sacked the city (Jer. 39:1–10). He then appointed Gedaliah, a Judean, to be governor of Judah (Jer. 40:5).
Gedaliah tried to work with the remaining inhabitants of the land, and the economy was good for those who still lived in the land during the early days after the Babylonian army left (Jer. 40:7–12). But there were plots on Gedaliah’s life (Jer. 40:13–16). Ishmael succeeded in killing the governor. He also murdered several pilgrims coming to Jerusalem to worship and took several hostages (Jer. 41:1–10). Though the hostages were rescued, the people feared what Babylon would do in retaliation for Gedaliah’s murder (Jer. 41:11–16).
The leaders advised everyone associated with the Gedaliah episode to flee to Egypt (Jer. 41:17–18). Before doing so, however, they decided to ask Jeremiah to seek God’s will on the matter (Jer. 42:1–6). Despite his unequivocal urging that they should remain in the land (Jer. 42:7–22), the people rejected Jeremiah’s word, left for Egypt, and forced Jeremiah and Baruch to accompany them, as if they were some sort of magic charm against God’s wrath (Jer. 43:1–7). Once in Egypt, Jeremiah fulfilled his calling to be a prophet to the nations (Jer. 1:5) by preaching against Judah’s sins, Egypt’s sins, and those of other countries, including Babylon (chs. 46–51). He most likely did not live to see the devastation he mentions in chapters 46–51, but he certainly would not have been surprised at how world events unfolded, given what he experienced in his lifetime.