Introductions are important because first impressions frequently linger, even when they are in fact mistaken. The Book of Jeremiah begins with what are in effect two introductions: the first (vv. 1-3) is the literary introduction to the book in the form in which we now have it; the second (vv. 4-19) is the record of the way in which Jeremiah entered on his prophetic ministry. One did not become a prophet of the LORD by family descent or by popular choice. It was the LORD alone who selected and appointed his prophetic messengers. Therefore the call by which God made known to them his purpose for their lives was the constitutive moment for their entire ministry. They could no longer live as they had previously; they had an inescapable divine directive to comply with. Moreover, the fact that a prophet had been divinely called was of vital significance to the people to whom he ministered. He was no longer a man uttering a message that reflected his own perception of their current situation, but one who came with a divinely originated message which was ignored at one’s peril. In presenting the account of his call to the people, Jeremiah was accrediting himself as a spokesman of the LORD, publicly committing himself to act in accordance with that commission, and claiming the right to demand their attention to what he said to them.
Unlike many works from the ancient Near East where matters such as the title of the work and the scribe who recorded it are dealt with in a colophon, a concluding paragraph containing such annotations, all the prophetic books of the Old Testament have introductory material naming the prophet and showing that his message was given by God. This may be done explicitly by using the formula ‘the word of the LORD’ (as in v. 2), or indirectly through phrases such as ‘he saw’ (Amos 1:1) or ‘the vision’ (Isa. 1:1; Obad. 1). Often there is also an indication of the period when the prophet was active, for example ‘in the days of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah’ (Mic. 1:1), and there may be a summary of the theme of the prophecy, such as ‘concerning Judah and Jerusalem’ (Isa. 1:1). Jeremiah has a fairly full introduction. It tells us who Jeremiah was (v. 1), where his message came from (v. 2), and how long his ministry lasted in a very turbulent period of Judah’s history (vv. 2-3). Of the introductory elements found elsewhere only that of the prophetic theme is not found, though it is strongly hinted at in the closing words ‘when the people of Jerusalem went into exile’ (v. 3). As subsequent generations approached the book of Jeremiah, they did so in the knowledge that he was the prophet whose word had come true: the Lord did enforce his sentence of deportation from the land.
But this inevitably raises the question of how these words came to placed here at the beginning of the prophecy. The view taken in this commentary of the process by which the book of Jeremiah was composed has been set out in the Introduction §2.2. The way in which v. 2 begins strongly suggests that the superscription originated in two stages. The title of v. 1 may be taken as the heading which Jeremiah dictated to Baruch when the First Scroll was written in the fourth year of Jehoiakim (36:2). Obviously v. 3 originated after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 b.c., and may well have been added by Jeremiah when he re-edited his prophetic works in Egypt some years later, not long before his death. The grammatical structure of v. 2 suggests that it was added at the same time as v. 3. Jeremiah wished to set before the disoriented and despairing survivors of the catastrophe that had engulfed Jerusalem the record of his ministry so that they would understand why these events had taken place and so that they would also find hope for their immediate future and for the long-term.
1. There are two different ways of understanding the phrase, the words of Jeremiah. ‘Word’ (dābār) may also signify ‘event’, ‘act’ or ‘chronicle’, as it frequently does in the books of Kings and Chronicles. For instance, in 2 Chron. 33:18 ‘the words of Manasseh’ refers to his actions as king, ‘the words of the seers’ are their utterances, and ‘the words of the kings of Israel’ are the written annals of their reigns. Since much of Jeremiah (and especially chapters 27-44) is taken up with an account of what happened to him, it has been suggested that this phrase is equivalent to ‘the history of Jeremiah’ (‘legacy of Jeremiah’, Lundbom 1999:222). This, however, is unlikely. A similar introductory phrase, ‘the words of Amos’, occurs in Amos 1:1, and the idea of a history of Amos is improbable there. Furthermore this phrase ‘the words of Jeremiah’ is used in 36:10 to describe Jeremiah’s message as found on the first scroll. Since the prophet’s primary task was to relay the word of God, it undoubtedly refers here to the message that the prophet brought.
The name Jeremiah itself is used of ten different men in Scripture. Two of them are listed among David’s warriors (1 Chron. 12:4, 13), and another two are in the book of Jeremiah itself (35:3; 52:1). Archaeology also attests the frequency of the name, in that three Hebrew bullae, seal impressions preserved on hardened clay, from around this period have been found with it. Its meaning is uncertain: probably ‘May the Lord exalt’ (with the verbal component of the name from the hiphil of rûm, ‘to make high’); or possibly ‘May the LORD hurl down Lhis enemies/ (<√rāmâ, ‘to cast down’); or even ‘May the Lord loosen ⌞the womb⌟ (again from the root rāmâ, but now meaning ‘to loosen the womb’ on the basis of a cognate root in Aramaic). The fact that it is a common name makes it unlikely that it has significance for the nature of Jeremiah’s ministry.
The prophet is identified as son of Hilkiah, another fairly common name, meaning ‘The Lord ⌞is⌟ my portion’. While there have been commentators who considered this to be a reference to the famous Hilkiah who was high priest at the time of Josiah’s reformation (2 Kgs. 22:4), that seems improbable because a reference to him would most probably have been explicitly indicated, and the high priest presumably lived in Jerusalem at this time. The additional information given that he was one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin seems clearly designed to rule out the possibility of confusion with the high priest. But to whom does this phrase refer: Hilkiah or Jeremiah? Jeremiah clearly came from a priestly family, but the expression does not require that he himself had ever been consecrated as a priest. Indeed Jeremiah’s claim to be ‘a youth’ (1:6) indicates he was not yet old enough for office. Rowley’s verdict still seems sound: ‘It would certainly be strange for Jeremiah to be described in this way if he actually served as a priest, but the phrase is unexceptionable as the description of one who came of a priestly family’ (1963: 139).
Anathoth was located near the modern Anata, three miles (5 km) north-east of Jerusalem (see Map 1). The town is also mentioned in 11:21, 23; 29:27, and 32:7-9. It was a very ancient settlement, its name being derived from that of the Canaanite goddess Anat. At the conquest of the land by the Israelites, it became a levitical city in Benjamite territory (Josh. 21:18; 1 Chron. 6:60). Solomon sent the high priest Abiathar, the last representative of the house of Eli, into internal exile in his home town of Anathoth (1 Kgs. 2:26-27). There is the possibility that the priests at Anathoth had kept alive memories of the sanctuary which had previously existed some miles further north at Shiloh—only Jeremiah among the prophets mentions it (7:12, 14; 26:6, 9). Living as he did at the northern border of Judah, Jeremiah would have grown up with an awareness of conditions in the territory of the former northern kingdom of Israel. Though there was no direct route to it, the sanctuary at Bethel was only eight miles (13 km) away.
But the dominant influences on life in priestly circles in Anathoth would have come from Jerusalem, as the capital city was only an hour’s walk away. Some have supposed that there was a high place at Anathoth where Jeremiah’s family served as country priests. The reforms of Josiah severely curtailed the activities of such country priests (2 Kgs. 23:8-9), and it may be that this provides the background for the tensions Jeremiah had to contend with in his local community (11:18-12:6). However, it seems improbable that Anathoth was associated with some local centre of worship. It was close to Jerusalem, and the priests of Anathoth would have gone regularly to the city to take part in the worship at the Temple. In the religiously bleak days of Manasseh’s reign, or during that of Amon, all the priests of Judah would have been compromised by their acquiescence in the practices promoted by the state cult. Jeremiah would therefore have grown up in a home where the traditional beliefs of the people were known, but which probably was affected by the religious confusion of the times.
2. Although English translations generally smooth out the construction of this verse, it is introduced in Hebrew by the relative ʾăs̆er, ‘which’, followed later by a resumptive ʾēlāw, ‘to him’, referring back to the antecedent Jeremiah. It is the resulting remoteness of ‘Jeremiah’ from the relative which suggests that the clause may have been used to add matter to an existing title.
What is to follow is declared to be not merely the message of a man. It is made clear right from the start that this is the message of God. The word of the Lord came to him reflects a standard expression for the reception of divine revelation by a prophet (Isa. 38:4; Ezek. 1:3; 3:16; Hos. 1:1; Joel 1:1; Zeph. 1:1; Hag. 1:1). The phrase indicates the completeness of the experience by which Jeremiah was informed of the divine message. Although the verb hāyâ is traditionally glossed as ‘to be’, its usage only partially overlaps that of the English word. In this expression with the preposition ʾel, ‘to’, it does not describe an on-going state of divine-word consciousness, but an experience which could be, and was, repeated (1:4, 11, 13; 2:1; 14:1; 46:1; 47:1; 49:34). It makes the claim that these words which are the words of a man are also the words of God. Consequently the prophet is not to be viewed as an astute individual whose insight into the spiritual and political conditions of his day equipped him to become a perceptive social commentator. Even if additionally we suppose that the prophet had a profound personal commitment to the Lord and that he urged the people of his day to maintain their loyalty to the Lord, our assessment would still fall short of the claim of Scripture. The prophet was one to whom the word of the Lord came, making the prophet directly aware of the divine assessment of the current situation and giving him information about it and the future propects for the nation that went beyond anything he could say on the basis of merely human insight. We do not know the details of how this was done; we cannot explain the mechanics of it (see Introduction §5. 2). But we accept their testimony that God spoke to them and commissioned them to take his message to others. That is the fundamental claim. It was controversial even during the course of Jeremiah’s career as he confronted others who claimed to be prophets but who presented a message that was contrary to what had been revealed to him (23: 9-40; 28-29). The claim that in Scripture we have the record of such direct revelation from God remains controversial, but that is what the self-witness of Scripture asserts, and it is only by acknowledging the truth of that claim that we can do justice to the message that is before us.
The introduction also provides us with information about the duration of Jeremiah’s ministry. In the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah may be identified as a reference to 627/6 b.c.. It is also found in 25:3, and marks the start of Jeremiah’s ministry. Because so few of his sayings are explicitly dated to Josiah’s reign, there have been those who argue his call ought to be dated later (see Introduction §4.1). But there is no textual evidence to support a later date here, and the supposition that the reference is not to the start of his public ministry but to his birth (‘called from the womb’, 1:4), is strained, and also contradicts a passage such as 3:6 which is clearly dated in Josiah’s time. Equally fanciful is the notion that the reference was back-calculated from 586 b.c. to give a forty-year ministry, symbolic of completeness and perhaps reflecting Moses’ public ministry in Israel.
3. Only the three major kings are mentioned in this summary of the period of Jeremiah’s ministry. Jehoahaz (609 b.c.) and Jehoiachin (598-597 b.c.), who each reigned for about three months, are omitted. And through the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah refers to the period from 609 to 598 b.c. during which Judah passed from Egyptian to Babylonian control after the decisive victory of Nebuchadnezzar at Carchemish in 605 b.c.. At the end of his reign Jehoiakim rebelled against Babylon. On his death his son Jehoiachin quickly submitted to Nebuchadnezzar, probably to spare the land more suffering. He was taken to Babylon and his uncle Zedekiah (Mattaniah) was put on the throne as a puppet ruler. His reign (597-586 b.c.) also culminated in rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar, and again Jerusalem was besieged. Down to the fifth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah involves a certain re-arrangement of the text, where ‘down to the completion of the eleventh year’ is separated from the ‘fifth month’, which is specifically mentioned as the time of the deportation (52:15), when the people of Jerusalem went into exile. The city fell on 18th July 586 b.c., and a month later its walls were razed and the Temple, the palace and much else were burned to the ground, and many of the inhabitants of the city were deported to Babylon.
There is, however, the question: did not Jeremiah’s ministry continue after this? We see him in chapters 41-44 ministering among those who fled to Egypt and took him with them. It is not that this later period is being disparaged, but rather that it is viewed as an appendix to his main ministry. Through forty years of frequently difficult circumstances Jeremiah had not deserted his post, but had warned Judah of the impending execution of the Lord’s judgment. When this came to pass with the fall of the city, it was a devastating climax to, and vindication of, Jeremiah’s ministry. The people had not accepted his warnings, and had rather given credence to those who proclaimed that somehow or other Jerusalem would escape the worst. But the people’s continuing rebellion against the Lord ensured that there could be no mitigation or avoidance of the sentence against them. Their dreams of security were shattered by the fall of the city, when Jeremiah was shown to have been right after all. Subsequent generations had to accept and live with that reality. It was for them that the prophet recorded the warnings God had given over the years so that they might acknowledge that their nation had brought disaster on itself. But there was still hope, because along with the many solemn warnings there had been given indications of a new age and a new covenant (31:23-40; 33:6-26). If Jeremiah’s ministry had not been able to turn Judah from its disastrous course in the years leading up to 586 b.c., then it could still be blessed to those who grappled with the aftermath of their national folly.
However, Jeremiah’s prophetic mission was in the first instance to a religiously blind and decadent age, trying to arrest its decline before it became totally plunged into disaster. This is the most remarkable fact about the book: that even when God’s message had been spurned, he continued to speak; even when his people stubbornly refused to respond to his entreaties, he was still concerned for them and addressed them. There was the possibility that some might be snatched from the fire (Jude 23). There was also the reality of God’s ongoing commitment. After the imposition of the covenant curse on their continued disloyalty, there would through divine grace be a restored relationship in which the people would hopefully have learned the grim lessons of the past.
When Jeremiah set out his prophetic credentials at the beginning of the scroll written in 605 b.c., it is clear that he brought together four different literary units. The heading ‘The word of the Lord came to me’, which begins the account of his call in vv. 4-10, is repeated in vv. 11 and 13 where it clearly marks the beginning of two vision reports, that of the almond branch (vv. 11-12) and that of the boiling pot (vv. 13-16). The change in subject between vv. 16 and 17 from the fate of the nation to personal directions to the prophet serves to delimit the final section of the chapter. The divisions of the passage are fairly widely agreed.
Jeremiah is not primarily concerned with giving autobiographical information. This record is a presentation of his prophetic credentials, and is intended to validate his claim to the office of prophet. His inner experience was not of course subject to direct verification by others, but he set out his personal testimony to provide a suitable background for others to assess his ministry. These are the directions he was given by the Lord, and they explain why he persevered with his task despite all the difficulties to be faced.
Form critical studies have analysed the various elements in the narrative of 1:4-10 and have shown the existence of parallels with other accounts of divine calls in the Old Testament, such as those of Moses (Exod. 3:1-12), Gideon (Judg. 6:11-23), Solomon (1 Kgs. 3:7), Isaiah (Isa. 6:1-13) and Ezekiel (1:1-3:15). The major divisions of the literary structure of