Life of the Prophet Jeremiah
Whereas we know considerably more about Jeremiah than we do about any other Hebrew prophet, about his early years we know very little. We are left to reconstruct his youth and early career from but a few details accompanying chronological notes in the book (1:1–2; 3:6; 25:1–3; 36:1–2), and from oracles within chapters 1–20 and 30–31 containing reform themes and a hope for the return of exiles from Assyria. It is, however, still possible to sketch in broad outline Jeremiah’s life and ministry during the reign of Josiah, even if details are unavailable. From the beginning of Jehoiakim’s reign, i.e., 609 BC, we know much better the activities of the prophet and the march of events because of prose in the book that is dated.
We learn from the superscription to the book that Jeremiah was born into a priestly family at Anathoth, a village three miles north of Jerusalem. Anathoth, although close to the capital city of the Southern Kingdom, nevertheless belonged to Benjamin, which was part of the Northern Kingdom, and it preserved northern traditions at the sanctuary there.
Anathoth was a village of priests, and Jeremiah’s father, Hilkiah, may have descended from Abiathar, a priest of David whom Solomon retired to Anathoth after he became king (1 Kgs 2:26–27). Anathoth preserved traditions from Shiloh, Israel’s first sanctuary located a short distance to the north. Shiloh was remembered not for Eli, its resident priest, but for Samuel who grew up under Eli and became the last of the Judges, a seer of reputation, and most importantly the first in a line of great Israelite prophets. Jeremiah recalled Shiloh’s destruction (Jer 7:12–14; 26:4–6), a memory too painful to receive even passing mention in Israel’s historical accounts. But it was remembered in Ps 78:60.
Jeremiah received his call to be a prophet in the thirteenth year of Josiah (Jer 1:2, 4), which was 627 BC. From the call passage in chapter 1 we see unmistakable parallels between Jeremiah and Samuel. Both grew up in Israelite sanctuaries under the instruction of priests, and both received their first revelation from Yahweh as young boys. Hebrew na‘ar is rightly translated “boy” in 1 Sam 3:1, 8 and Jer 1:6–7 (NRSV). Both learned at a young age that Yahweh was about to bring judgment and destruction, and that they were the ones selected to convey that word—in Samuel’s case to Eli the priest (1 Sam 3:11–14), and in Jeremiah’s case to “nations and kingdoms” (Jer 1:10). Both were naturally afraid of what this would entail. Samuel was doubtless relieved when Eli accepted the judgment on him and his house (1 Sam 3:18). Jeremiah was given only a promise, but it was a good one: Yahweh would deliver him from all those rising up against him (Jer 1:8).
From the passage reporting Jeremiah’s call it is clear that so far as Jeremiah’s own self-understanding was concerned, the prophet looming largest for him was Moses. Jeremiah’s vision before a budding almond tree recalled Moses’ vision of a burning bush (Jer 1:11–12; Exod 3:2–6), and Jeremiah’s protestation about being unable to speak had a parallel in Moses’ demur about not being eloquent (Jer 1:6; Exod 4:10–17). There was more. In Deuteronomy, which achieved written form in the late monarchy, most likely in the seventh century, Moses too had become a prophet—indeed, he was the greatest of all prophets (Deut 34:10–12). Yahweh told Moses in Deuteronomy that in future days he would raise up a prophet like him:
A prophet I will raise up for them, from the midst of their brethren, like you, and I will put my words in his mouth, and he will speak to them all that I command him.
Jeremiah understood himself to be this “prophet like Moses.” He hears Yahweh saying to him:
Look, I have put my words in your mouth,
See, I have appointed you this day,
over the nations and over the kingdoms,
to uproot and to break down,
and to destroy and to overthrow,
to build up and to plant.
Jeremiah did not accept Yahweh’s call when it came to him. Unlike Isaiah, he was not ready to accept. Nor was Yahweh ready for an acceptance. Yahweh said in the vision following that his word awaited a later fulfillment (Jer 1:12).
We learn of Jeremiah’s acceptance only later, when in one of his confessions he reflects back on the time when acceptance took place. Jeremiah says:
Your words were found and I ate them,
and your word was to me for joy,
and for the gladness of my heart,
For your name is called upon me,
Yahweh, the God of hosts.
I sat not in the happy crowd and acted jolly,
because of your hand, all alone I sat,
for with indignation you filled me.
Jeremiah is referring to the finding of the law book in the Temple during the reform of Josiah (2 Kgs 22:8–20), and says that he was joyful when the promised words of Yahweh came into his mouth. He had not been joyful when the call first came. Jeremiah goes on to say, however, that now he is filled with bitterness as the words have penetrated more deeply and have brought him much pain. What was written on this scroll we do not know, but based on the oracle given by the prophetess Huldah after the law book was found (2 Kgs 22:16–17), it appears she was making contemporary a portion of the old Song of Moses poem (Deut 32:15–22). Jeremiah’s acceptance, in any case, can be dated at 622 BC, when the law book was found. The prophet designate was five years older than he was at the time the call was received.
Jeremiah was now ready to be commissioned for prophetic office, and we can assume the commissioning took place soon after the prophet’s acceptance. The reporting of the divine commissioning comes in Jer 1:13–19, and with it comes another vision, this one of a boiling pot over fire about to spill over. There are rumblings already of a menacing foe coming from the north. Babylon is stirring in the lower Euphrates after Assurbanipal’s death in 627, but not until 612 will it destroy Nineveh with help from the Medes, and not until 605 will Nebuchadnezzar be in the Philistine Plain destroying Ashkelon and Ekron. Nevertheless, a foe is on the rise, and Jeremiah is warned that it will threaten Judah.
From 622 to 609 Judah enjoyed a period of relative peace, with the Assyrians pulling out of the territory to the north; the young Josiah carrying out a reform and covenant renewal in Jerusalem; hope arising in the prophet and others that exiles taken away to Assyria would return home and make their way to Zion (Jer 31:1–6, 7–9, 10–14); and that Israel would once again be united as in the time of David and Solomon.
During this time Jeremiah preached major reform themes of doing away with foreign worship and returning to the covenant brokered by Moses at Sinai. Covenant people must return to Yahweh, where the Hebrew word shub also translates as “repent” (Jer 2:1–4:4). Jeremiah’s earliest preaching contains echoes of the Song of Moses, which censures in the strongest terms Israel’s abandoning Yahweh and going after other gods.
During Josiah’s reign the prophet doubtless spoke some of his oracles on the “foe from the north” (Jer 4:5–10:25), warning people that if they did not return to Yahweh the terrible curses of Deuteronomy would fall. The “foe oracles” are best dated during Babylon’s rise as a formidable power in the east, that is, 614–612, although some may be earlier. The prophet Habakkuk announced the rise of this same foe (Hab 1:5–11), and the earliest date assigned to his preaching is 615 BC. Josiah was killed in battle with the Egyptian pharaoh in 609 BC, after which the reform was over. Foe oracles would doubtless have continued during the early years of Jehoiakim, while the prophet was still active (609–605 BC). With the near certainty of war and national destruction, Jeremiah was commanded by Yahweh not to marry (Jer 16:1–4; cf. 1 Cor 7:25–26).
Laments would be forthcoming—and for Jeremiah were already being made—since they follow as a matter of course in the wake of death and destruction. Jeremiah grieved deeply and wept over individuals, the nation, and all creation (chapters 8–9), and in personal laments (chapters 11–20), called his “confessions,” he unburdened himself to Yahweh about having to preach destruction and at what cost it was to him personally. Personal laments may begin even earlier in the Josianic years, when Jeremiah was preaching on behalf of the reform. One of the reform themes, after all, was centralized worship in Jerusalem, which would have resulted in the closing of the Anathoth sanctuary, putting him at odds with priestly kin (Jer 11:18–23; 12:1–6). Otherwise the bulk of the prophet’s personal and communal laments are best dated during the reign of Jehoiakim. This king had no love for the prophet and the feeling was mutual.
When Jehoiakim took the throne in 609, Jeremiah gave oracles at the Temple that would certainly have offended the king and did offend the priests and prophets who were there to hear them (Jer 26:1–19; cf. 7:1–15). One is reminded here of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s radio address in Germany just after Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933. In Jeremiah’s case, court was quickly called into session and Jeremiah was put on trial for his life. The prophet managed to survive, thanks to help from princes in the royal court who were his friends, and who decided the case, and from elders who spoke up in his defense at the trial. Jeremiah’s defense was a remarkable one. He said simply that Yahweh had sent him with the message he had preached (Jer 26:12–15).
In 605 BC, when Nebuchadnezzar was in the Philistine plain destroying Ashkelon and Ekron, Jeremiah decided it was time to write up his prophecies on a scroll and have them read publicly on a fast day, which was sure to be called. Yahweh, in fact, had told him to do so. So the prophet called Baruch, a trained scribe from a Jerusalem family of scribes, and dictated to him a collection of oracles. At the time Jeremiah was debarred from the Temple precinct, so the prophet told Baruch to read the scroll on the coming fast day (Jer 36:1–7).
Sure enough, a fast was called within a year, and Baruch did as instructed, reading the scroll to a public assembly and then reading it again to royal officials in a Temple library. The latter included friends of Jeremiah and Baruch, who told the two to go into hiding as the scroll would have to be read to the king, and the better part of wisdom would be for them to be in a place where no one could find them. Jeremiah and Baruch found safekeeping. The early career of Jeremiah thus ended in 604. The king heard the scroll read and, instead of weeping and rending his garment as Josiah did (2 Kgs 22:19), he cast it strip by strip into the fire. The prophet remained out of public view during the rest of Jehoiakim’s reign, which ended in shame, indignity, and the king’s death that goes unmentioned in the biblical text, just before 597 BC, when Nebuchadnezzar came to force the surrender of Jerusalem.
This first visit of Nebuchadnezzar to Jerusalem did not bring about Judah’s demise, although it could have. The young King Jehoiachin, the Queen Mother, and leading citizens were taken into exile, and Nebuchadnezzar took home considerable treasure from Jerusalem. Before returning home, the Babylonian king put Zedekiah on the Jerusalem throne, leaving Judah a rump state now subservient to Babylon. Jeremiah appears to have emerged from hiding just prior to the surrender, telling Jehoiachin and the Queen Mother to step down (Jer 13:18–20). They did, at considerable cost to them and others, in Jerusalem. After the captives were in faraway Babylon, Jeremiah wrote letters to them telling them to settle down for the time being, as a return home would be a long ways off (Jer 29:1–29).
Jeremiah’s ministry during Zedekiah’s reign is fairly well documented, probably as a result of the close relationship that developed between the prophet and Baruch the scribe. This last decade of prophetic ministry under Judah’s final king was another round of hard times. Jeremiah was active during the first four years of Zedekiah’s reign, that is, 597–594/3 BC, but then for a period up until 588 we have no knowledge of the prophet’s activities. Jeremiah is again seen to be active during the final siege of Jerusalem, 588–586. We are rather well informed about the prophet’s activity just prior to the fall of Jerusalem, when he had become a key figure in the tragic drama that was unfolding.
Zedekiah continually sought him out, hoping against hope that Yahweh would save the nation as in times past (Jer 21:1–2; 38:14–28). Jeremiah attempted intercession with Yahweh, but could only tell Zedekiah that Yahweh was fighting against the city, and his only hope was to surrender to the Babylonian king (Jer 38:17–23). But he would not listen.
Jeremiah endured much suffering in Jerusalem’s last days (Jer 37:1–39:10). Twice he was cast into prison and both times freed at the command of the king. From his place of confinement in the court of the guard he gave his “new covenant” prophecy (Jer 31:31–34), which once again marked him as “the prophet like Moses.”
The city fell to the Babylonians in 586 BC and Nebuzaradan, acting on a direct order from Nebuchadnezzar, released Jeremiah from his chains. Jeremiah then joined the remnant community at Mizpah, where Gedaliah, a member of the Shaphan scribal family, with whom Jeremiah had a friendship of longstanding, was the Babylonian-appointed governor (Jer 39:11–43:7). Baruch was freed also, for he turns up with Jeremiah after the destruction of Jerusalem and goes with Jeremiah to Egypt (Jer 43:3, 6).
The Mizpah community was fractured when Gedaliah and others were murdered in a plot instigated by the king of Ammon (Jeremiah 40–41), and survivors had to flee the place. How long was the Mizpah community in existence? There are no helpful dates in the prose of chapters 37–44, and the history in chapters 40–42 appears to be telescoped, suggesting at first glance a short life for the community. But from a scribal note in Jer 52:28–30, which is lacking in the parallel account closing 2 Kings, we learn that Nebuzaradan returned in 582 BC to take a third group of captives to Babylon, suggesting that his coming in this year was in response to Gedeliah’s murder. The community could then have existed for as many as four years.
The surviving group went to Egypt, taking Jeremiah and Baruch with them. Jeremiah did not want to go to Egypt, but had to. They settled in Tahpanhes in the Nile delta (Jer 43:7). Jeremiah, probably now between fifty-five and sixty years old, preached to the exiles there, finding them to be carrying on the same Queen of Heaven (= Ashtart) worship that had gone on back in Jerusalem. He predicted for them and for Egypt a visitation of Yahweh’s judgment (Jer 43:8—44:30). Jeremiah is last heard from in Egypt. The Bible does not record his death, and in later tradition are conflicting reports about martyrdom or a natural death in Egypt.