Jeremiah was set aside before birth to take a message to the nations, urging a change of heart and turning to the one true God. His message still applies.
Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, a Levitical priest, was likely born between 650 and 645 B.C. He was from the small village of Anathoth, about three miles northeast of Jerusalem in the territory of Benjamin (Jeremiah 1:1). It was through Jeremiah’s childhood training for holy service in the priesthood that God began grooming him for his future role.
In the 13th year of King Josiah of Judah (ca. 627 B.C.), God called Jeremiah when he was still a youth, (verse 2). In fact, God had already set Jeremiah apart for the office of a prophet before he was even born, in order to take God’s words to all Israel and to the nations (verse 5).
God gave Jeremiah the overview of his prophetic ministry: “Behold, I have put My words in your mouth. See, I have this day set you over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out and to pull down, to destroy and to throw down, to build and to plant” (verses 9-10). This meant that God had appointed Jeremiah to proclaim the destruction and building of nations that would eventually lead to the Kingdom of God.
Jeremiah’s life and times
Jeremiah served as one of God’s prophets through the rule of five kings of Judah (Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin and Zedekiah). He even continued to plead God’s case against Judah during the time of Jerusalem’s destruction by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. (Jeremiah 1:3; 52:7-11).
His prophetic ministry extended over a period of more than 40 years, during which he wrote both Jeremiah and Lamentations. Contemporary prophets during the time of Jeremiah included Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Daniel and Ezekiel.
Restoring God’s covenant
Jeremiah grew up in a generation that saw the tearing down of the pagan high places of worship—altars, pillars, images and even some shrines that dated back to King Solomon (2 Kings 23:10-15). At the start of Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry, Judah’s King Josiah was only 21 years old. Josiah had already begun to make major reforms in an effort to bring Judah back to proper religious observance (2 Chronicles 34:3).
Five years later, the long-missing Book of the Law was discovered hidden in the temple in Jerusalem (2 Kings 22:3, 8). Jeremiah devoted himself to preaching “the words of this covenant” to the people in Jerusalem and throughout Judah (Jeremiah 11:1-8). It was in this same year that the Passover, a festival of God that had been neglected (2 Kings 23:22-23), was observed by the nation once again.
God called Jeremiah to his prophetic ministry about one year after King Josiah began leading the nation in a great reform from the widespread idolatry promoted by his father, Amon, and his grandfather, Manasseh (2 Kings 21:10, 20). About a century earlier King Hezekiah had led religious reforms in Judah (2 Kings 18:4), but his son Manasseh promoted the vile practice of child sacrifice and worship of the “queen of heaven” (Jeremiah 7:18; 44:19). This continued into Jeremiah’s time (Jeremiah 7:31; 19:5; 32:35).
It was against this background that Jeremiah was appointed to reveal the sins of the people and the grave consequences of ignoring them. Jeremiah was among those who had hoped for a permanent spiritual revival, but tragedy came when righteous Josiah died suddenly at the young age of 39. The whole nation mourned his death, as did Jeremiah (2 Chronicles 35:25).
Ultimately, Josiah’s reforms would not be enough to preserve Judah and Jerusalem from God’s punishment because the sins of Manasseh had become so deeply embedded (Jeremiah 15:4; 2 Kings 23:26-27). Judgment would now come upon the nation for the sins of the people.
Cause and effect
God told Jeremiah to announce Jerusalem’s coming destruction by invaders from the north (Jeremiah 1:14-15; 4:6; 6:22-23). God’s people had broken their covenant with God (Jeremiah 11:10). They had forsaken God by worshipping the false gods called Baals (Jeremiah 2:8; 7:9; 11:13) and even went as far as building altars to Baal in order to burn their children as offerings (Jeremiah 19:4-5).
Jeremiah exposed some of the persistent sins of the people, including pride and ingratitude toward God’s lovingkindness. Other specific sins he identified included idolatry (Jeremiah 44:1-30); adultery (Jeremiah 5:7-9; 7:9); oppressing the foreigners, orphans and widows (Jeremiah 7:5-6); lying and slander (Jeremiah 9:4-6); and Sabbath-breaking (Jeremiah 17:19-27). (How many of these sins are being repeated in our modern world?)
Jeremiah announced that the effects of sin would be that God would withdraw His blessings (Jeremiah 16:5-10). The nation would now be faced with famine and starvation. Invaders would plunder them; and finally they would be taken captive into a foreign land (Jeremiah 14:12; 15:1-4; 16:4; 19:8-9; 25:8-9).
Jeremiah would witness the fulfillment of God’s warnings of disaster, and he would share in the sorrow and troubles that would follow the destruction of Jerusalem. In fact, very soon after Josiah died—within the 11 years of King Jehoiakim’s short reign—Babylon attacked Judah’s cities repeatedly until the total destruction of Jerusalem and the collapse of the Jewish nation came.
Jeremiah lived in Jerusalem through this terrible time, witnessing its siege and destruction at the hands of the Babylonians (Jeremiah 37:4-5; 38:2, 28; 39:1).
God forbade Jeremiah from taking a wife during his ministry. Apparently, God chose to spare Jeremiah the additional terror and worry he would have faced had he had a wife and children during this time (Jeremiah 16:1-6).
Jeremiah is persecuted
When King Josiah died, Jeremiah’s hardships as a prophet of God increased. His message aroused great hostility and death threats, especially in his native city, Anathoth (Jeremiah 11:21). Even his own relatives conspired against him and betrayed him (Jeremiah 12:6).
His persecution increased in Jerusalem when a priest named Pashhur sought out Jeremiah to have him beaten and put in the stocks at the Upper Gate of Benjamin for a day (Jeremiah 20:1-2). After this, Jeremiah lamented the hardship that had come to him for speaking God’s words. It was difficult to have become a laughingstock to the people and a target of mockery (verse 7).
Later, spiteful men obtained the king’s approval to arrest Jeremiah for prophesying disaster. These men then lowered Jeremiah by ropes into a cistern, and he sank into a layer of mud (Jeremiah 38:1-6). When another court official learned about Jeremiah’s fate, he persuaded the king to let him rescue Jeremiah before he starved to death at the bottom of the cistern (verses 7-13).
Yet Jeremiah knew he had to speak the message God had given him. He wrote how, if he tried to resist speaking what God told him to speak and tried to not even mention God’s name, God’s words became like fire in his heart. He was unable to hold them in (Jeremiah 20:9).
God told Jeremiah that if he would boldly speak His words and not shrink back in fear of the people, He would give him the strength he needed to withstand the persecution. God told him, “I will make you to this people a fortified bronze wall; and they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you; for I am with you to save you and deliver you” (Jeremiah 15:20-21).
God’s messages through Jeremiah
The message God sent to the people via His prophet was that the people needed to return to God. Another message was God’s impending judgment upon Judah.
Even though this punishment would surely come, God also gave the encouraging promise of restoration in the future messianic Kingdom (Jeremiah 23:3-8). And before Judah was destroyed, God revealed plans that He would protect the Jewish exiles during their stay in Babylon (Jeremiah 29:5-7) and that He would cause them to return to Judah after 70 years (Jeremiah 25:11-12; 29:10; 33:6-7).
Another encouraging message in this book was God’s willingness to spare and bless the nation if the people would have repented of their sins (Jeremiah 7:5-7; 18:1-11). One of the remarkable principles of God is that even against the backdrop of the punishments He had decreed for Judah, He still offered the people a way to avert His anger:
“The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it” (Jeremiah 18:7-8).
God reminds us that the opposite is also true: “And the instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it, if it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice, then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it” (verses 9-10).
Hope for God’s people
Jeremiah lists several specific hopes to carry God’s people through the time of the Babylonian captivity and beyond:
God would bring a remnant back to Judah to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple (Jeremiah 29:10-14;30:2-3).
God would raise up a descendant of David to serve God and guide His people—a reference to Jesus Christ’s coming (Jeremiah 23:5-6; 33:14-17).
God would bring a remnant back to Israel a second time and would reunite the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel together as a unified people in the Kingdom of God (Jeremiah 3:18;16:14-15; 23:7-8; 30:18-22; 32:36-44; 33:23-26).
God would heal the spiritual wounds of His people, restore His covenant with them and build up and plant His people Israel again (Jeremiah 30:12-17; 31:27-28, 31-34; 32:38-41).
A message for us today
God is merciful and long-suffering in dealing with the sins and ignorance of men, but He will not endure their sins forever (Exodus 34:6-7). God sent many messengers to ancient Israel urging the people to turn their hearts back to God before He sent correction (Nehemiah 9:30; Jeremiah 25:4-7). This principle applies to our day as well.
Prior to their captivity, God told the people of Judah: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the LORD, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:11-13).
Jeremiah was often inspired to look beyond the distressing scenes of the present to the hope of a glorious future when God’s people would return from the land of the enemy back to their homeland (Jeremiah 31:12). The final fulfillment will come when Jesus Christ returns to establish the Kingdom of God.
Prophets of God often performed a dual role. One was to warn a wicked nation of God’s judgments while powerfully calling on them to repent and turn from their sins. And the other was to build up and encourage the faithful of that time as well as us today to remain steadfast in living godly lives and to stay close to God in order to weather the increase in wickedness.
Such will be the conditions in the world before Christ’s return (Matthew 24:11-12). God’s servants must boldly preach a message of warning and repentance to the nations (Matthew 24:14; Mark 16:15-16) and also a message of comfort and hope to those who fear God and do His will (Romans 2:7-8; James 5:7-8, 11).
This message is called the gospel of the Kingdom, and we need to understand it and respond.
Jeremiah’s message fell largely on deaf ears. Few responded. Those few who did preserved their own lives and those of their loved ones.
Now, the question is: How will you respond?