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Overview of Jeremiah

 
 
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(By Mark Fontecchio)

Historical Background and Purpose

There can be little doubt that each book of the Bible must be set into its proper historical context if the interpreter seeks to understand the original intent of the text. Understanding the difficult days in which Jeremiah lived and ministered helps the reader to bridge the cultural gap that exists between the modern reader and the situation the Jewish people faced.

The opening verses provide some basic information about this book. Jeremiah identified himself as the author in verse 1. Fortunately, the timeframe of his ministry is also identified:

The words of Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, 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. It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the carrying away of Jerusalem captive in the fifth month (Jer. 1:1-3).[1]

It should immediately be noted that within these verses Jeremiah mentioned the kings of Judah. The northern tribes of Israel had already been taken captive about a century before Jeremiah began to minister in Judah. Irving Jensen explains that Jeremiah’s own dating means, “Jeremiah began his prophetic ministry in the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign (627), and continued through the critical reigns of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah into the captivity period.”[2]

The fall of Judah to Babylon was a major turning point in the history of the Jewish people. The judgment of God led to the destruction of the Temple and the deportation of the Jewish people. Jeremiah was charged by God with the task of warning the people of Judah that the hammer of God’s discipline was about to fall. Jeremiah served the Lord during the final years before Judah was taken into captivity.

Charles Dyer summarizes the spiritual life of Judah during this time:

Internally the nation of Judah was gripped by the idolatry that King Manasseh had promoted during his 55-year reign (2 Kings 21:1–9). In 622 b.c. (Josiah’s 18th year) Judah experienced her final spiritual renewal (cf. 2 Kings 22:3–23:25). Prompted by the rediscovery of a copy of the Mosaic Law in the temple, Josiah embarked on a diligent effort to rid the nation of idolatry. He succeeded in removing the outward forms, but his efforts did not reach into his subjects’ hearts. After Josiah’s untimely death, the people returned to their wicked ways.[3]

The idolatry and stubborn rebellion of the people led God to judge the nation. Jeremiah was to warn the people that Judah would be subject to Babylon unless the people turned to God.

Structure

There are a number of key elements that stand out about the style and structure of the book of Jeremiah. It is immediately noticeable that Jeremiah was used by God to write this intensely personal, prophetic book. His feelings are on display as he not only wept over the coming judgment, but as he also dealt with persecution from the people of Judah (Jer. 9:1; 20:7-10).

A careful student of Scripture will notice in Jeremiah three types of literature. Dyer instructs, “Three types of literary materials are found in the Book of Jeremiah: poetic discourses, prose discourses, and prose narratives. The arrangement of these materials can provide a key to the underlying structure of Jeremiah.”[4] The change in literary types seems to suggest proper divisions in the overall book.

It is notable that Jeremiah was not written in chronological order. What would be the purpose for this? The Spirit of God inspired Jeremiah to arrange the material in an order that would best convey the message to the men and women of Judah.

Development of the Major Theme

Understanding the historical background of Jeremiah immediately helps the reader to see the major theme of this prophetic book. God was about to judge the nation of Judah. Nebuchadnezzar and the nation of Babylon would come upon the people unless they turned from their idolatry and immorality. Even in this message of judgment, Jeremiah indicated that God still had a plan and a future for the Hebrew people (Jer. 30-33). Tom Constable also points out, “Once it became clear that the people would not repent, he advocated submission to Babylon to minimize the destruction that was inevitable. As God’s prophetic spokesman, he also uttered oracles against the nations that opposed God’s chosen people (chs. 46–51).”[5] Undoubtedly, the major theme is the coming judgment upon Judah for their rebellion against God.

Theological Messages and Contemporary Significance

Jeremiah is rich with theological teaching. As previously mentioned, idolatry and immorality were rampant in Judah. Yet, the sins of the nation extended further. Outward worship of the Lord continued even though the hearts of the people were far from Him. Even the priests and prophets had gone astray (Jer. 6:13-15). Charles Feinberg summarizes an important lesson from this time:

But God was not to be placated with these merely external services. Jeremiah preached that judgment was inescapable. God had already used drought, famine, and foreign invaders (14:1–6; 4:11–22); he would yet bring the culminating visitation through Nebuchadnezzar (25:9). But God’s love and faithfulness to his covenants would not permit the judgment to be fatal or final. There was a future hope. Jeremiah foretold the return from captivity in Babylon (25:11; 29:10) as well as the doom of Babylon itself (chs. 50–51). He did not hesitate to give Israel’s hope tangible manifestation (32:1–15).[6]

The applications from this teaching are many. Even today God is not interested in worship that is only outward. God wants Christians to worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23). Further, God’s dealings with the nation of Judah in the Book of Jeremiah reveal considerable details about how God interacts with His people. His patience and mercy are great. Even in judgment, God had a plan to one day restore the nation of Israel.

Jeremiah was called to a difficult ministry. His message was not received by the people. Jeremiah’s understanding of who God is and his trust in the Lord sustained him during these difficult times. Jeremiah understood that the God of the Jews is the Creator (Jer. 27:5). The prophet of God also realized that the false gods of his time were counterfeits and powerless. Jeremiah stated, “The gods that have not made the heavens and the earth shall perish from the earth and from under these heavens” (Jer. 10:11). This man of God recognized how offensive idol worship is to the one true God.

Believers in Christ are called to live and serve in a fallen world. Living in a land where people hate Jesus Christ means that Christians should learn from the lessons of Jeremiah. He drew strength from knowing God. It is for this reason that Christians need to take heed of the words from Paul in Romans 12:2, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” During the difficult times Christians must lean on our understanding from the Word of God of who the Lord is. Confidence in Him and His promises will help us to walk by faith (2 Cor. 5:7).

It should not be missed that Jeremiah had a ministry to the Gentile nations around Judah. The Lord told him, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:5). This continued throughout the book of Jeremiah. In chapter 27:1-11 Jeremiah was instructed to warn the other nations to not resist Nebuchadnezzar. His ministry as a prophet to the nations can again be seen throughout chapters 46-51.

There is a valuable lesson for the Church in understanding Jeremiah’s messages to the nations. God’s love, mercy, and grace extend to the people of the entire world. This same principle is witnessed in the New Testament. Christ called for the disciples to go to, “all the nations” (Matt. 28:19).

There is a dynamic that unfolds in Jeremiah that should not be overlooked. Bad things were happening to the people of Judah. Famine, drought, and foreign enemies were plaguing the nation (Jer. 4:11-22; 14:1-6). These things were happening for a reason. God was already beginning to discipline the people. Still, the people of Judah did not see the true cause of their problems. Constable explains, “The people interpreted these calamities as the result of their failure to continue worshipping the Queen of Heaven and their other pagan idols (44:18). Jeremiah saw that sin leads to death. He came to appreciate the devastating effects of sin.”[7]

Certainly God continues to judge the lost people of the world. Even for Christians, sin can have a devastating impact upon our lives. Ananias and Sapphira experienced this firsthand when they were judged for lying to God (Acts 5:1-11).  Paul warned the church of Corinth that some of the believers had died and some were sick because of their sin (1 Cor. 11:27-29). The chastening of the Lord is God’s loving discipline of Christians (Heb. 12:5-8). Our own sin is not always the direct cause of bad things happening in the lives of believers, but it must be considered. Thankfully, Christians can look to the day when sin will reign no more.

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Endnotes

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture is taken from The Holy Bible: The New King James Version. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982).

[2] Irving L. Jensen, Jeremiah and Lamentations, Everyman’s Bible Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1974), 12.

[3] Charles H. Dyer, “Jeremiah,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 1125.

[4] Ibid., 1127.

[5] Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), Isa. 66:24.

[6] Charles L. Feinberg, “Jeremiah,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 6 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986), 369.

[7] Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), Isa. 66:24.

 

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