The words of Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, one 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, and until the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah, the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month. – Jeremiah 1:1-3 ESV
The book of Jeremiah is named for the man who penned it. He was a prophet who lived during the late seventh and early sixth-century within the territory of Judah, also known as the southern kingdom. During his lifetime and ministry, the nation of Israel was divided into two kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah to the south. This division had come about because of the sins of Solomon, the king of Israel and the son of David. Solomon had started out well, but had finished poorly. The book of 1 Kings provides us with a synopsis of the epic failure of his once-mighty kingdom and reign.
Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love. He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. – 1 Kings 11:1-4 ESV
As a result of Solomon’s unfaithfulness, God determined to split the kingdom in two. He would preserve the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin, in keeping with the covenant He had made with King David. Many years earlier, when David was king, he had determined to build a great temple for God, but God turned down David’s offer and, instead, told him that He would build David a house.
“And I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more.
“When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.” – 2 Samuel 7:9-10, 12-13, 16 ESV
This promise was partially fulfilled in Solomon, David’s son. But it’s true and ultimate fulfillment were to be found in Jesus Christ, the descendant of David whose kingdom will be established in the end times. He will be the one to rule and reign over a kingdom that will have no end.
While Solomon did end up building a great temple for the Lord, he also erected altars to the gods of his many wives so that they could offer sacrifices to them.
For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done. Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. – 1 Kings 11:5-7 ESV
As a result of his blatant disobedience, Solomon would be punished by God. He would be allowed to finish his reign, but once Solomon was dead, God would split the kingdom in two.
“Behold, I am about to tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon and will give you ten tribes (but he shall have one tribe, for the sake of my servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem, the city that I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel), because they have forsaken me and worshiped Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of Moab, and Milcom the god of the Ammonites, and they have not walked in my ways, doing what is right in my sight and keeping my statutes and my rules, as David his father did.” – 1 Kings 11:31-33 ESV
The southern kingdom of Judah was the one to which Jeremiah was commissioned to speak on behalf of God. We are told in verse two that Jeremiah began to prophesy in the 13th year of King Josiah’s reign. This would have been the year 627 B.C. He would have been about 20 years old at the time. His prophetic ministry most likely lasted four decades, and spanned the reigns of five different kings. Jeremiah would begin his ministry under the rule of Josiah, the reformer-king, who instituted many important spiritual changes within the kingdom. But those reforms would not last long. Each successive king led the people of Judah down a path that resulted in increasing disobedience and moral decay. All during this time, the threat of annihilation at the hands of the Babylonians was an ever-present reality.
It was into this unstable and immoral environment that Jeremiah was called to minister on behalf of God. By the time Jeremiah came along, the northern kingdom of Israel had already fallen to the Assyrians. This took place in 722 B.C. The book of 2 Kings provides us a summary of what happened and the cause behind it.
In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria, and he carried the Israelites away to Assyria and placed them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.
And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had practiced. And the people of Israel did secretly against the Lord their God things that were not right. They built for themselves high places in all their towns, from watchtower to fortified city. They set up for themselves pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there they made offerings on all the high places, as the nations did whom the Lord carried away before them. And they did wicked things, provoking the Lord to anger, and they served idols, of which the Lord had said to them, “You shall not do this.” Yet the Lord warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the Law that I commanded your fathers, and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.”
But they would not listen, but were stubborn, as their fathers had been, who did not believe in the Lord their God. – 2 Kings 17:6-14 ESV
The people living in the southern kingdom of Judah had watched all this take place. They had been eye-witnesses to the moral decline of their northern neighbors and had stood by and watched as God sent His prophets, calling the people of Israel to repentance, and warning them of impending doom if they failed to return to Him. And they had seen God keep His word, as Samaria, the capital city of Israel was destroyed and the people of Israel were taken into captivity by the Assyrians.
And yet, the people of Judah seemed to learn nothing from Israel’s mistakes. In spite of the early reforms of Josiah, they would continue to model the immoral behavior of their Israelite cousins. In fact, we’re told in the book of 2 Kings:
Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight. None was left but the tribe of Judah only.
Judah also did not keep the commandments of the Lord their God, but walked in the customs that Israel had introduced. – 2 Kings 17:18-19 ESV
So God called Jeremiah. It was Jeremiah “to whom the word of the Lord came” (Jeremiah 1:2 ESV). He would become God’s spokesman, His mouthpiece, declaring His message of repentance and warnings of God’s wrath if they failed to obey and return to Him. As we will see, Jeremiah’s mission was anything but easy. For nearly four decades, he would declare the word of the Lord, finding few who would listen to His message. He would face increasing opposition and find himself persona non grata, an unwelcome fixture in his homeland. He will provide us with insights into what it was like to be a prophet of God in those trying times. It was a difficult and lonely life. His ministry would feel fruitless. His words would fall on deaf ears. But Jeremiah would prove faithful to the end. He would stay the course and complete the assignment given to him by God. He would struggle with despondency and despair. There would be days when he wanted to quit. At times, he would grow angry with God. On more than one occasion, he would boldly speak his mind to God and express his growing frustration with the Almighty. But he never gave up. He kept doing what he had been called to do, all the way up to the fall of Jerusalem. Jeremiah will be a compelling picture of faithfulness in the face of difficulty and perseverance based on obedience, not success.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.