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Jeremiah, The Book of

The Background.

The editorial introduction to the book of Jeremiah, 1.1–3, informs us that the book contains “the words of Jeremiah,” that is, what Jeremiah said and did—the Hebrew term translated “words” can cover both—from the beginning of his prophetic ministry in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah, 627 BCE, until the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587/586 BCE. This is not strictly an accurate account of the contents of the present book since chaps. 40–44 describe the activity of the prophet both in Judah and in Egypt after the fall of Jerusalem. Nevertheless the last forty years of the independent Judean state are the stage on which Jeremiah played out his major prophetic role. Since the book is full of historical references to events in this period, it is important for our understanding of the book to sketch briefly the political factors that shaped these years. They witnessed the gradual break up of the once all‐powerful Assyrian empire and the resurgence within Judah of a religious nationalism that culminated in the reformation under King Josiah in 621 BCE (2 Kings 22–23). Although this religious nationalism must have received a jolt with the death of Josiah at the battle of Megiddo in 609 BCE, it still had a trump card: Jerusalem, the city of God, with its Temple where God dwelt, guaranteeing by his presence that this city could never be conquered or destroyed (see Pss. 46 and 48). Such self‐confident religious nationalism clashed with the new imperial power of the day, the Neo‐Babylonian empire. Under a succession of monarchs, Judah tried to play anti‐Babylonian power politics with other small states, aided and abetted by Egypt, in an unsuccessful attempt to postpone the inevitable. In 597 BCE Jerusalem surrendered to the Babylonians, and the cream of Judean society went into exile. The last king of Judah, Zedekiah, came to the throne as a Babylonian nominee. But the anti‐Babylonian lobby in Jerusalem prevailed until, ten years later in 587/586 BCE, the city was captured and destroyed. The curtain had fallen for the last time on the independent kingdom of Judah. The book of Jeremiah depicts a man who consistently protested against political and religious policies that sealed the fate of his country, a prophet who in the eyes of the establishment of his day was both traitor and heretic. If the fall of Jerusalem had not vindicated his stance, we might now have been reading not the book of Jeremiah but the book of Hananiah (see chap. 28) or of some of the other prophets with whom Jeremiah clashed.

The Problem of the Book.

But what do we mean by the book of Jeremiah? The prophets from Amos onward are sometimes called “the writing prophets” because in the Bible we find books to which their names are attached. If this conveys the impression that in such prophetic books we are dealing with a series of books each written by one person, then this is highly misleading, nowhere more so than in the case of the book of Jeremiah. In it we find duplicate accounts of the same events: twice we hear of Jeremiah's sermon in the Temple, once in chap. 7, once in chap. 26; and there are two versions of Jeremiah's arrest, imprisonment, and secret interview with King Zedekiah (37.11–21; 38.1–13). The same or very similar passages will appear in different contexts in the book: thus 6.13–15 reappears in 8.10b–12, and 23.19–20 in 30.23–24. A passage in 49.19–20, which occurs in the context of judgment against Edom, is repeated with minor variations in the context of judgment against Babylon in 50.44–46. Moreover, there is material within the book that is closely paralleled in other prophetic books; chap. 48 dealing with Moab has many similarities with Isaiah 15–16, while the section on Edom in 49.7–22 reads like a series of variations on Obadiah. At times we come across blocks of material dealing with a common theme or linked together by catchwords or phrases. Thus 3.1–4.4 deals with the infidelity and adultery of God's people; 21.1–23.6 gives us the prophet's verdict on various kings of Judah; 23.9–40 is headed “concerning the prophets”; 30, 31, and 33 (the “book of consolation”) gather together words of hope for the future, and inserted in their midst (in chap. 32) is an incident from the life of Jeremiah that illustrates this theme. Within this book of consolation, brief independent sections are placed together and introduced by the same phrase. Thus three passages, each introduced by “The days are surely coming,” are placed together in 31.27–40. The largest clearly defined collection of material in the book is chaps. 46–51, which contains “oracles against the nations.” Such blocks of material, however, only serve to underline the general lack of order that runs through the book as a whole. There is no clear chronological ordering of material; chap. 21, for example, deals with events during the final siege of Jerusalem, chap. 26 with an event that happened more than twenty years earlier. The book keeps jumping about disconcertingly from topic to topic and seems to be needlessly repetitive. At times we are reading poetry, at other times prose. The book makes more sense as a collection or collections of varied material rather than as a work with a coherent theme or plot or any systematic historical framework.

There is a good reason for this. The preexilic prophets are not primarily writers but preachers, messengers of God who transmit their message by word of mouth. The message often takes the form of a brief poetic oracle that begins “Thus says the Lord” and often ends in the book of Jeremiah with another phrase that the NRSV renders “says the Lord,” 2.1–3 being an excellent example; see also 2.5–8; 4.27–28; 5.14–15; 6.6–9, 9–12. The present book of Jeremiah contains collections of many such prophetic sayings, almost certainly preserved originally in oral form, supplemented by the addition of biographical and other editorial material. Behind it lies, as we shall see, a long and complex history of transmission, the details of which remain obscure.

The Text.

We have spoken so far of the book of Jeremiah, but what book do we mean? The book of Jeremiah has come down to us in two forms, represented by the standard Hebrew Masoretic text (MT) and the Greek text (Septuagint [LXX]), and these two text forms differ significantly from each other. The LXX is approximately one‐eighth shorter, lacking, it has been calculated, some 2,700 words of the MT. Furthermore, some of the material is differently placed in the two text forms. The “oracles against the nations” come in the MT at chaps. 46–51; in the LXX they are placed immediately after the words “everything written in this book” in 25.13a, and the individual oracles occur in a different order. Some further light on the problem of the two texts has been shed by the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among fragments of the book of Jeremiah from Caves Two and Four, there are some that support the MT where it differs from the LXX. From Cave Four, however, has come a Hebrew text that follows the LXX textual tradition against the MT in Jeremiah 10 in omitting vv. 6–8 and 10. Thus in Palestine prior to the common era there is evidence for the existence of two Hebrew textual traditions of the book of Jeremiah, a longer one corresponding to what became the standard Hebrew text and a shorter one corresponding to the Greek text. Which one takes us nearer to the earliest form of the text of the book is a matter of scholarly debate. On the whole, the balance of opinion favors the shorter LXX with the MT being regarded as a secondary, expanded text. It contains, for example, many descriptive titles of God not found in the LXX, and while “the prophet” appears as a designation of Jeremiah only four times in the LXX, it occurs twenty‐six times in the MT. This is not, however, to say that in every case the shorter text is the superior text or that it represents the “original text” of Jeremiah, whatever that may mean. Each case must be treated on its merits. Since English Bibles follow the standard Hebrew text we shall continue to refer to the contents of the book as in this tradition.

Content and Sources.

It is generally agreed that the material in the book of Jeremiah falls into three categories, each stemming from different sources or circles.

Poetic material

, to be found in the main interspersed with prose passages in chaps. 1–25. These poetic sections consist largely of oracles in which the prophet functions as God's messenger, speaking in the name of God. They cover a variety of themes, including the nation's infidelity to the Lord and the call to repentance (3.1–5; 4.13–18; 6.15–17), with attacks on the religious and political establishment of the day (2.8–9; 6.13–15; 22.13–19). These poetic passages are on the whole undated and are given no clearly defined context, but it is widely held that in such passages we are in touch with the teaching of the prophet Jeremiah, and that much of the material in chaps. 1–25 represents the earliest stage of the book of Jeremiah. Such passages may well have been part of the scroll that King Jehoiakim, according to chap. 36, insolently consigned to the flames in the winter of 604 BCE, whereupon Jeremiah redictated the scroll to the scribe Baruch and for good measure added similar words. Certainly there is little in such poetic oracles that could not have come from the early years of the prophet's ministry between the time of his call (627 BCE according to 1.2) and 604 BCE.

In addition to these oracles in which the prophet speaks the word of God to his people, there are other poetic passages in 1–25 that are in the form of intensely personal poems that have been called Jeremiah's confessions or his spiritual diary (see 11.18–12.6; 15.10–21; 17.5–10, 14–18; 18.18–23; 20.7–18). Here we listen not to the word of God on the lips of the prophet but to a man baring his own soul and exposing some of the tensions involved in being a prophet. These passages are without parallel in prophetic literature. Attempts have been made to read them as cultic poems, modeled on the psalms of lament, that have no real roots in the life of Jeremiah. There seems, however, little reason to doubt that they reflect Jeremiah's experience. As such they are of the highest significance and interest. They show us that behind the apparently untroubled certainty of “Thus says the Lord” there may lie a host of unresolved questions and deep inner turmoil. This is a very human prophet committed to a vocation that tears him apart, agonizing over the apparent failure of his ministry, on the verge of giving up, consumed by a savage bitterness against those who opposed or ignored what he had to say, accusing God of betraying him.

There are two other blocks of material in the book outside chaps. 1–25 that similarly contain poetic prophetic oracles, often interspersed with and expanded by prose sections.

a) Chaps. 30, 31 and 33, the so‐called book of consolation, consisting of oracles whose basic theme is that of hope beyond national disaster. This material is probably of very varied origin. The influence of an earlier prophet, Hosea, is very marked in some sections (e.g., 31.1–6), while the language and thought of other passages have close links with a later prophet, the author of Isaiah 40–55 (e.g., 31.10–14). That some of the material in this section goes back to Jeremiah, however, we need not doubt.

b) Chaps. 46–51, the oracles against the nations. The tradition of oracles against other nations, particularly those that threaten the existence of Israel, is one that can be traced back to Amos 1.3–2.3. Such oracles occur also in other prophetic books: Isaiah 13–23, Ezekiel 25–32, Nahum, and Obadiah. Inasmuch as Jeremiah was called, according to 1.5, to be “a prophet to the nations,” it is hardly surprising that a substantial collection of such oracles appears in the book. Such oracles affirm that the God of Israel is lord over all nations and pronounce judgment on them not only for their treatment of Israel, but for the arrogant self‐confidence that assumes that might is right and for actions that sacrifice justice and human rights to imperial ambitions. It is evident from the different setting in which these oracles are placed in the Hebrew and Greek texts, and the different ordering of the oracles within this material, that they once circulated as an independent collection. How much of it can be traced back to Jeremiah himself is a highly contentious issue.

Biographical narratives

that claim to recount key incidents in the life of the prophet. There are two notable features of these narratives. First, there are more such narratives in the book of Jeremiah than in any other prophetic book, and thus, if authentic, they provide us with more information about Jeremiah than is available for any other prophet. Such narratives are to be found in chaps. 26–29, 32, 34–44. Second, these narratives are usually provided with precise dating, the earliest dated to 609 BCE (26:1). If therefore we assume, following 1.2, that Jeremiah's prophetic ministry began in 627 BCE, we have no such narrative for almost the first twenty years of his ministry. This, allied to the lack of any clear evidence in the book for Jeremiah's attitude to the key religious event of this period, the reformation under King Josiah in 621 BCE, has led a variety of scholars to believe that his ministry did not begin until 612 BCE or 609 BCE, with 627 BCE being the possible date of his birth. This is not, however, a necessary inference. The biographical narratives are often linked with the scribe Baruch, who appears in Jeremiah's company in chaps. 32, 36, 43, and 45. We could argue from the lack of biographical material prior to 609 BCE that Baruch first came into contact with Jeremiah in 609; perhaps he was drawn to Jeremiah as the result of the Temple sermon that chap. 26 dates to that year. We have spoken of biographical narratives, but we must not assume from this that it is possible to write a satisfactory biography of Jeremiah, even from 609 BCE onward. The narratives do not appear in chronological sequence, nor do they do any more than highlight what are taken to be certain key incidents that reveal the prophet often locked in conflict with the religious and political establishment of the day. It is no more possible to write a satisfactory biography of Jeremiah on the basis of these narratives than it is to write a life of Jesus on the basis of the gospel narratives. If we push this analogy further we would have to say that it is the events leading up to and surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE that occupy in the book of Jeremiah the central place that the passion narratives occupy in the Gospels. It is perhaps not surprising that the book of Jeremiah ends in chap. 52 with an account of the fall of Jerusalem, derived in the main from 2 Kings 24–25.

Prose passages

occur throughout the book, sometimes in the form of sermons or speeches attributed to Jeremiah, which are usually called Deuteronomic (or Deuteronomistic), since they reflect the style, language, and thought of the book of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic editors who shaped the history of Israel that we find in the books of Judges to 2 Kings. Typical examples of this material are the Temple sermon in chap. 7 and the covenant passage in 11.1–17. It is these Deuteronomic passages that have provoked the greatest controversy in the study of the book of Jeremiah. Some would trace them to Jeremiah himself; others argue that they reflect the characteristic rhetorical prose style of Jeremiah's day and present a tradition of Jeremiah's teaching as handed down in circles familiar with this style and sympathetic to the theology of the book of Deuteronomy. A variation of this view is to regard such passages as conventional scribal compositions and attribute them to Baruch. All such views trace the material in its present form back to the time of Jeremiah. Others, however, believe that such passages are later, either emanating from Deuteronomic preachers during the period of the exile in Babylon in the sixth century BCE or reflecting theological issues of a still later date during the Persian period. It is doubtful whether in their present form such passages can be attributed to Jeremiah, but it is unduly skeptical to deny that they may well have their roots in a tradition that builds on what Jeremiah said and did. Nor should we think that we necessarily solve problems by speaking about the Deuteronomists. They are at best shadowy figures. We do not know with certainty either who they were or when they functioned.

How or when such varied material came together to form the book of Jeremiah, either in its shorter or its longer form, we do not know, but it must have taken many decades, or even centuries, after Jeremiah's life. The very nature of the book—its varied components, the clear evidence of editing within it, the amalgamation of different traditions—raises the question as to what extent the book provides us with reliable historical data concerning the life, words, and deeds of the prophet. Some deny that the book provides us with any access to the historical Jeremiah. Behind the editing, however, and in and through the varied material, there does seem to emerge a prophetic figure of striking individuality, God's spokesman to Judah at a major crisis point in the life of the nation, and it is hard to see why such a figure should be nothing other than the invention of later ages.

Key Religious Issues.

In addition to much that the book of Jeremiah shares with other prophetic books, there are two issues to which specific attention may be briefly drawn. First is the problem of prophecy. The book speaks not only of one prophet, Jeremiah, but of many prophets. Chap. 28 describes the clash between Jeremiah and the prophet Hananiah, a representative of the Jerusalem religious establishment. Both preface their words by “Thus says the Lord,” both use the same prophetic techniques to communicate the message, both are no doubt equally sincere, and both speak a diametrically opposite message. Hananiah declares that the Lord will protect his people and break the power of Babylon, and there was much in Israel's past faith to support his view (e.g., Isa. 31.1–5; Ps. 48); Jeremiah insists that such a message of peace, that all is well with the people basking in God's favor, must be false (6.13–15). But how would anyone witnessing such a clash know who had the true prophetic word? The tests for identifying false prophecy in Deuteronomy 13.1–5 and 18.16–20 would have been little help. In Jeremiah 23.9–40 it is claimed that prophets who proclaim a word that presents no challenge to the conscience of the nation stand in no relationship to God and have no access to his word. They do no more than spout lies they themselves have invented. But how could Jeremiah know this? Did he never wonder whether he himself was mistaken when he heard the confident “Thus says the Lord” of such prophets? This may be the implication of 20.7. The book of Jeremiah highlights the difficulties that people in Judah faced in deciding what was the authentic word of God for them in their day. They had to take choices and live with the consequences.

The second issue is the message of hope. Throughout the book of Jeremiah we find oracles of judgment that insist that Jerusalem must be destroyed, its fate sealed not by the Babylonians but by God. But there are also words of hope, not hope that sidesteps disaster, but hope of a new future beyond disaster. Many of the pictures of hope beyond the richly deserved judgment are modest and simple: people returning to the towns they were once forced to leave, the renewal of life in the countryside, the resumed worship of God in Jerusalem (31.23–25; 33.10–13). But there is another strand. Again and again the prophet draws attention to the stubborn evil heart or will that grips the people (e.g., 3.17). It means that the call to repent falls on deaf ears; it turns the most serious attempt to reform the nation's life into a dead letter. If things are ever to be lastingly different, it can only come through a new initiative of God that will transform human nature. This is the theme of the new covenant passage in 31.31–34, a vision that, drawing on Israel's relationship with God in the past symbolized by the covenant at Mount Sinai, sees a new relationship in the future, based as was the past on God's grace, but a relationship in which the people will be able to give the obedience for which God looks. Thus the book of Jeremiah, which draws richly on Israel's past religious traditions, reaches out to the future. In terms of the new covenant theme, the New Testament claims that that future became the present in Jesus (1 Cor. 11.25; Heb. 8.6–13).

Robert Davidson

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