Jeremiah or Yirmiyáhu (יִרְמְיָהוּ, Standard Hebrew Yirməyáhu), was one of the "greater prophets" of the Old Testament, and the son of Hilkiah, a priest of Anathoth.
The name Jeremiah means "Raised-up/Appointed of the Lord.” According to the Book of Jeremiah, he prophesied in Jerusalem from the thirteenth year of King Josiah of Judah through the eleventh year of King Zedekiah, a period of 40 years from roughly 626-586 B.C.E. After this he continued his prophetic ministry from exile in Egypt for some time. The Book of Jeremiah identifies his pupil Baruch, the son of Neriah, as the loyal scribe who transcribed much of his work and probably provided many of the biographical details of his life, which is better documented than any other Hebrew prophet.
Jeremiah lived in a time when the Kingdom of Judah not only faced military challenges from foreign invaders and spiritual challenges from Canaanite religion, but also bitter internal divisions. Even the prophets of Yahweh denounced each other, and kings received conflicting advice on matters of state from those who spoke in God's name. Fearless in the face of both political and religious authority, Jeremiah did not hesitate to confront Temple authorities and royal personages alike. He was the epitome of the prophet who, regardless of consequences, declared the truth to power.
Jeremiah's prophecies contain some of the most inspiring and troubling passages in the Bible. In one breath he tells his listeners of God's compassion, his forgiveness, and his promise of a New Covenant in which the laws of God will be written on men's hearts rather than tablets of stone. In the next, he becomes a channel for God's fierce, implacable wrath.
The only Hebrew prophet specifically instructed not to marry, Jeremiah often faced isolation and rejection. "I never sat in the company of revelers, never made merry with them," he lamented to God, "I sat alone because your hand was on me" (15:17).
He was a controversial figure in his own day, facing prison several times and supporting the politically unpopular policy of accommodation with pagan invaders rather than resistance in God's name. His prediction that Judah was doomed to suffer in exile for several generations proved true, however, while rival prophets who urged a policy of resistance eventually faltered. His understanding of the divine providence became the prevailing Jewish viewpoint in the exilic and post-exilic period. This, coupled with his sublime oracles promising that God would eventually temper his wrath and form a New Covenant with his people, made Jeremiah one of most enduring and important figures to Jews and Christians alike.
Beside the prophecies written in the Book of Jeremiah, he is traditionally credited with the authorship of the biblical Book of Lamentations as well as the apocryphal Letter of Jeremiah, although contemporary scholarship generally rejects his authorship of either of these works, especially the latter. Some of the prophecies included in the Book of Jeremiah itself are also thought to be latter additions.
According to the account of the book that bears his name, Jeremiah was called to the prophetical office when still relatively young, in the thirteenth year of Josiah around 628 B.C.E. His calling promised him practically unequaled authority, together with powerful earthly opposition and divine protection:
At an uncertain point after his calling, Jeremiah left his native home and priestly family in Anathoth and went to reside in Jerusalem. In a hopeful mood, possibly inspired by King Josiah's campaign against idolatry, he declared an end to the "divorce" between God and the desolated northern Kingdom of Israel (3:12) and called for the people of Judah and Israel alike to return to the Lord. On the other hand, he warned of impending doom from a foreign enemy, saying: "from the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land" (1:14). The devastation would be so great that God commanded him:
Jeremiah's message went beyond that of mere support of monotheism an opposition to idolatry. Although he probably supported the young king's newly promulgated—or rediscovered—"Book of the Law," (2 Kings 22-23) he rejected the importance of external religious trappings. Neither the priestly burnt offerings nor even the sacred Ark of the Covenant itself were essential to God's relationship to his people:
Few details are given regarding Jeremiah's career during the reign of Josiah. Some have suggested that he may have continued to dwell in his native Anathoth (about three miles north of Jerusalem) during this period as was not much involved in Jerusalem's affairs. Others believe he strongly supported Josiah's program of reformation, traveling throughout Judah to promote belief in Yahweh alone and to put an end to the worship of Canaanite deities. He condemned the practice of worshiping "on every high hill and under every spreading tree" (3:6) and proclaimed "in the towns of Judah" that the people must "listen to the terms of this covenant and follow them" (11:6). Another possibility, however, is that Jeremiah's relations with Josiah became strained. Some authorities suggest that Jeremiah might have opposed certain of Josiah's policies, such has his centralization of the priesthood exclusively in Jerusalem, his fatal military campaign against Pharaoh Neco II of Egypt, or his reliance on Temple officials as key advisers. Since Josiah is regarded by the Bible as the most righteous of the kings of Judah after David, later editors may have excised any portions of Jeremiah's writings that were critical of Josiah.
After Josiah's death in the battle of Meggido, one of his sons, Jehoahaz, reigned for just three month until being dethroned by the Egyptians. During the reign of Jehoahaz' brother Jehoiachim (609–598 B.C.E.), Jeremiah was clearly present and active in Jerusalem. His preaching was upsetting to the king, Temple authorities, and the people alike. To the king, he declared:
To the Temple authorities and general populace he warned:
This speech resulted in Jeremiah's being officially threatened with capital punishment (26:16) and restricted from preaching in the Temple confines (36:5). Not to be deterred, Jeremiah subsequently dictated his prophecies to Baruch and instructed him to read them in the Temple courtyard. The prophecies were later delivered and read to King Jehoiachim himself. They so outraged the king that he cut the scroll into pieces, burned it, and ordered both Jeremiah and Baruch arrested (36:23-26). The two outlaws went into hiding, where Jeremiah dictated an even longer collection of prophecy.
Exactly which of Jeremiah's oracles offended Jehoiachim is not specified. Certainly Jeremiah's earlier prophecy challenging the king on social justice issues would have been difficult for the king to hear. Jehoiachim's apparent greater tolerance toward Canaanite religion than that of his father Josiah could have been another issue. One policy on which king and prophet overtly disagreed, however, was that of Babylon. "You burned that scroll," declared Jeremiah, "and said, 'Why did you write on it that the king of Babylon would certainly come and destroy this land and cut off both men and animals from it?'" (36:29)
Jehoiachim had been a cooperative vassal of Egypt, Babylon's enemy. Jeremiah, on the other hand, believed that the Babylonians were the instrument of God's wrath against Judah on account of its sin. Babylon had defeated Egypt at the Battle of Carchemish in 605 B.C.E., and Jeremiah urged accommodation with the Babylonians. Jehoiachim determined to resist and withheld the payment of required tribute to the new regional power. Jeremiah's warnings against resisting Babylon certainly caused Jehoiachim to view him as a political liability or possibly even a Babylonian agent. In any case, Jeremiah's predictions proved true, as Jerusalem now faced a Babylonian invasion and siege, during which Jehoiachim died.
To Jehoiachim's son Jehoiachin, Jeremiah's words were particularly harsh:
Whether these are literally Jeremiah's words or a later addition written in his name, it is certain that the prophet did publicly challenge the royal policy toward Babylon. For Jeremiah, Nebuchadnezzar was "God's servant," sent to punish Judah. Jehoiachin's decision to continue his father's policy of resistance against Babylon constituted, therefore, a grave mistake. Even the fact that previous invasions had plundered Jerusalem's sacred Temple did not cause Jeremiah to waver in his belief that Nebuchadnezzar was acting on behalf of God. Standing at the gate to the Temple, Jeremiah had warned:
Jehoiachin did not hold out long against the power of Babylon's armies. He surrendered after only three months on the throne, and was taken in chains to Babylon, together with many of Jerusalem's leading citizens. Nebuchadnezzar found what he believed was a suitable replacement for him in the person of his uncle, Zedekiah.
The most dramatic events of Jeremiah's ministry came during the reign of Judah's last king. Having been appointed by the Babylonian authorities, Zedekiah was initially cooperative and even lifted the restrictions against Jeremiah, who was now allowed back into the Temple. The prophet, for his part, had become an enthusiastic supporter of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, proclaiming on God's behalf: "I made the earth and its people and the animals that are on it, and I give it to anyone I please. Now I will hand all your countries over to my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon." (27:5-6)
Then, in Zedekiah's fourth year as monarch, talk began to circulate about gaining independence. Jeremiah countered this by appearing in the marketplace with a wooden yoke around his neck publicly counseling a policy of submission to the Babylonian power. The influential Temple-affiliated prophet Hananiah, however, endorsed the seemingly patriotic plan of rebellion against the pagan power, declaring to Jeremiah and others:
In an act of high prophetic drama, Hananiah then grabbed the yoke from Jeremiah's shoulders and broke it. Jeremiah retreated to consider, and then countered with a prophecy of his own declaring that Hananiah himself would die within the promised two-year period (28). In the next chapter is recorded the text of a remarkable letter from Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon, counseling them not to listen to other prophets, but to settle down, buy property, raise families, and pray for the Babylonian king (29).
Jeremiah's predictions, as usual, would eventually prove correct, but in the short term both he and the nation faced serious trouble. King Zedekiah decided to support the rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar, and the Babylonians soon marched in force again against Judah. Jeremiah warned the king directly that resistance would bring disaster, but in the current political climate this was difficult advice for the independence-minded king to accept. When the Babylonians temporarily lifted their siege to cope with the threat of a resurgent Egypt, Jeremiah left Jerusalem on business in the nearby territory of Benjamin and was arrested as a deserter. He was beaten and placed in a dungeon, although he was soon released at Zedekiah's command. Confined in the palace court, he refused to keep quiet concerning the final downfall of Judah, and the king's officers silenced him by imprisoning him in an empty cistern. He was saved from death from starvation only by the intervention of the king's Ethiopian eunuch. Jeremiah remained captive in the palace prison until his liberation by the Babylonians after they captured Jerusalem. Zedekiah, for his part, was forced into exile in Babylon and blinded.
The Babylonians honored Jeremiah, allowing him to choose his place of residence, and he decided to settle in the new capital of Mizpah with Gedaliah, the newly appointed governor of Judea. Gedaliah was soon assassinated as a collaborationist by an Amorite agent. He was succeeded by a certain Johanan, who rejected Jeremiah's counsels and fled to Egypt, taking Jeremiah and Baruch with him (43:6). There, the prophet probably spent the remainder of his life. There is no authentic record of his death. One legend (see below) states that he was killed by his fellow exiles as a result of his unpopular preaching. Another tradition portrays him is finding his way to Babylon with the army of Nebuchadnezzar.
Jeremiah develops the concept of God's love and the importance of man's faithfulness more fully than any previous biblical prophet. God is a loving father to his people, and he mourns their estrangement:
The prophet also describes God's love for his people in terms of the conjugal relations between man and wife: "I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the desert, through a land not sown" (2:2). "I am your husband," God declares to Israel, "'Return... I will frown on you no longer" (3:11-12). And again: "I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness. I will build you up again and you will be rebuilt, O Virgin Israel. Again you will take up your tambourines and go out to dance with the joyful" (31:3-4).
Jeremiah perceived God's compassion for his people to be so intense as to cause God to weep in sympathetic pain:
To Jeremiah, God revealed a heart broken by the betrayal of his people.
Like all true biblical prophets, Jeremiah strongly condemned idolatry, which he likened to a wife's committing adultery, and warned of doom for God's people if they did not repent.
Because of his belief that Judah's sins had made God's punishment virtually inevitable, his prophecies betray a tortured soul who must stand reluctantly for an angry God before the people, while also standing for the people before God. He sometimes spoke as if God's anger, resulting from his people's lack of faith, was so great that there was no hope of salvation:
Yet, in other prophecies, he conveyed the hope that it was never too late for repentance:
Jeremiah emphasized the seriousness and pervasiveness of sin, which he believed offended God deeply:
At times Jeremiah grew so frustrated by his countrymen's mistreatment of him that he even cursed his enemies and implored God to torment them:
Jeremiah campaigned tirelessly against false religion, whether practiced in Canaanite shrines or in the name of Yahweh himself:
The prophet emphasized that true religion must be practiced first and foremost in the heart of the individual. Like Hosea, Isaiah, and other prophets before him, he stressed the need for morality, spiritual sincerity, and social justice over external piety and Temple ritual. He challenged the priestly authority directly, saying in God's name:
Thus for Jeremiah, the "circumcision of the heart" was more important than the circumcision of the flesh (4:4). He wrestled with God over the question of moral and social evil: "O Lord... I would speak with you about your justice. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?" (12:1). He threatened kings with God's wrath if they did not administer justice properly (21:12) and demanded that the wealthy citizens of Judah liberate their slaves of Hebrew birth (43). He insisted that the Sabbath day of rest be scrupulously observed (17:19-27) (however this prophecy is considered by some authorities to be a later addition incompatible with Jeremiah's opposition to religious formalism).
Jeremiah's most enduring theme was the idea of a New Covenant.
So confident was Jeremiah in God's promise of renewed spiritual and physical blessing to the land that in the midst of a Babylonian siege, he invested in land in his native Anathoth, where he had previously faced a plot against his life (11:21), declaring:
Even when he was imprisoned and the Babylonians stood at the gates of Jerusalem, Jeremiah did not abandon this hope:
Tragically, this is one prophecy of Jeremiah that did not prove true, for the Babylonians shortly destroyed both Jerusalem and its Temple; and the Davidic throne has been without an occupant for more than 2,500 years.
More than any historical figure in the Bible, Jeremiah bears his soul to his readers. His self-portrait is not one of inner peace and harmony with the Divine. In fact, his own relationship with God was a stormy one. At times his closeness to God clearly brought him happiness: "When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart's delight, for I bear your name, O Lord God Almighty" (15:17). Yet almost immediately, the prophet lapses into complaint: "Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? Will you be to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails?"
Having surrendered to the divine will at an early age, he apparently became a lifelong celibate at God's command, something unprecedented in the history of the prophets. He faced assassination plots from people in his own hometown, as well as official opposition that cost him his freedom several times and nearly cost him his life. At the time of his calling, God had promised him protection and great authority, but neither of these seem to have materialized.
Jeremiah's feelings of trapped frustration are palpable as he laments:
In the end, Jeremiah would be known as one of the greatest of the prophets, whose sacrifices left an enduring legacy of hope for mankind. But in his own lifetime, it can only be concluded that his closeness to God brought him deepest sorrow and loneliness.
While Jeremiah is seldom mentioned directly in the New Testament, his influence on Jesus and the New Testament writers is evident. Jesus quoted Jeremiah 7:11 in his words to the moneychangers in the Temple courtyard, saying: "Is it not written, 'My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations'? But you have made it 'a den of robbers'" (Matt. 21:13). It is also likely that Jesus was thinking of Jeremiah's experience in Anathoth when he declared, "Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor" (Matt. 13:57).
Like Jeremiah, Jesus predicted that the Temple would be made desolate if the rulers, priests, and people did not respond to God's call; and like Jeremiah he faced capital punishment shortly after his public denunciation of the Temple's corruption. Even the pathos Jesus showed at the end of his life—"my soul is sorrowful even unto death... let this cup pass from me... my God, why have you forsaken me?"—can be seen as reminiscent of Jeremiah.
The earliest Christian writer, Saint Paul, speaks of the Christian ministry as fulfilling Jeremiah's prophecy of a New Covenant: "He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." Both Paul (I Cor. 11:25) and Luke (22:20) portray the Last Supper as initiating the New Covenant of Jesus' blood. Hebrews 8:7-8 directly quotes Jeremiah's own prophecy of the New Covenant as being fulfilled in Jesus.
Indeed, the term New Testament itself is simply an alternate translation of the normal rendering Jeremiah's "New Covenant."
In rabbinic literature, Jeremiah and Moses are often mentioned together; their life and works being presented in parallel lines. He was said to be a contemporary of his relative the prophetess Hulda, whom King Josiah consulted concerning the authenticity of the newly discovered Book of the Law in the Temple. Hulda supposedly ministered to Jerusalem's women while Jeremiah spoke to the men in the street. When Josiah restored the true worship, Jeremiah became a traveling preacher to the exiled ten tribes, many of whom returned to Palestine under Josiah's rule. Another tradition states that Jeremiah warned Josiah against going to war against Egypt, which resulted in Josiah's death.
The merits of Jeremiah were so great that God would not bring punishment upon Jerusalem so long as the prophet was in the city. God therefore commanded him to go to Anathoth; and only in his absence was the city taken and the Temple destroyed. Among the many other legends concerning Jeremiah is one in which, before the destruction of the Temple, the prophet hid the Ark of the Covenant in the mountain from which God showed the Holy Land to Moses.
According to a Christian legend (in pseudo-Epiphanius, "Lives of the Prophets") Jeremiah was stoned by his compatriots in Egypt because he reproached them with their evil deeds. This account of Jeremiah's martyrdom, however, may have come originally from Jewish sources. From the same source comes another story that Jeremiah's prayers freed Egypt from a plague of crocodiles and mice; for which reason his name was for a long time honored by the Egyptians.
Christians believe that Jeremiah's prediction that there would be a “new covenant” was fulfilled in Jesus and in the community of those who follow him. His legacy continues to inform Christian thought, especially his wrestling with his sense of calling and of suffering for the sake of God, which can be said to have inspired the whole genre of spiritual confessions, perhaps best exemplified by the Confessions of Augustine of Hippo and (15:1-21).
Jews continued to find in Jeremiah's advice to the exiles in Babylon a reason for their continued faithfulness to the Torah even when denied access to the Temple of Jerusalem, or to the ministrations of the priesthood. Jewish life in Babylon centered instead on the Torah, on its study and on becoming light in a dark world. Jeremiah said, “Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat of their fruit; take wives and have sons and daughters…and seek for the peace of the city where I (God) have caused you to be captive, for its peace will be your peace” (29:5-7). Babylon remained a center of Jewish culture and scholarship even after Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem (538 B.C.E.), producing the Babylonian Talmud in 550 C.E..
Many Jews have understood their role in the world as to work for the peace and prosperity of the cities in which they find themselves. Thus, by making the world a more humane place, the coming of the Messiah might be anticipated by creating the type of conditions that will characterize the reign of the Messiah. Philo (30 B.C.E.-45 C.E.) thought Jews could best counter the charge that they were haters of humanity by spreading peace, reason, knowledge and wisdom throughout the world. Maimonides (1135-1204) thought it more likely that the expected Messiah would come, not suddenly and dramatically but “as a result of progressive, unmiraculous improvements in human rationality” (Johnson 1967, 190). It is therefore no accident that Jews have contributed to almost all branches of learning and scholarship disproportionately to their numerical size as a religious and social community.
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