Throughout the stories told in the Old Testament, we find three kinds of figures. All of them in various ways are types of the Lord Jesus, but no one figure portrays Him completely. We have kings, like David or Hezekiah. We have faithful priests, like Aaron or Jehoida. And we have the prophets, men like Malachi, Isaiah, or Jeremiah. Our story today concerns Jeremiah, who in many ways typifies the role that prophets had been given.
In the centuries leading up to the ministry of Jeremiah, the landscape had been completely altered. Israel had come out of Egypt under Moses, and they invaded Canaan under the leadership of the great Joshua. This inaugurated the period of the judges, men who ruled a decentralized and often oppressed people. The last of these judges was a prophet named Samuel, who was used by God to anoint the first two kings over Israel—first Saul, and then David. David established Israel as a mighty nation, and Solomon ruled over Israel in the days of her glory. But after Solomon died, Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, refused to grant tax relief, and the kingdom split in two. Israel was made up of the ten tribes to the north, and Judah was made up of Judah and Benjamin to the south. The history of both kingdoms was checkered, but Israel was worse. About a century before Jeremiah’s life and ministry, Assyria had conquered the northern kingdom. Jeremiah’s role was to prophesy to the nation of Judah as their idolatry caused them to careen toward their own defeat by Babylon.
Jeremiah came from a priestly family (1:1), and it is plain that they were also a devout family. Jeremiah’s name means “Yahweh exalts” or “Yahweh throws down,” and so it is plain what his family desired for the nation. Jeremiah was called to the prophetic ministry when he was a “youth” (1:6), a word that can refer to an infant or an older adolescent.
Jeremiah was called to the prophetic ministry in the thirteenth year of King Josiah (626 BC), and spanned the next forty years. He was a faithful prophet, and served until shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC. During these four decades of mostly grief, he prophesied under five kings, two of whom served only for three months each. His ministry stretched over the reign of Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah.
Judah was surrounded by three great powers. There was Assyria, still a player but in the process of collapsing. There was Egypt, which had been on the scene for a long time. And then there was the rising star of Babylon, a power that had been underestimated in the days of Hezekiah.
King Josiah died in a battle with Pharaoh Necho. His successor, Jehoahaz (or Shallum), reigned for three months until Pharaoh Necho replaced him with his brother Jehoiakim. Jeremiah lamented both the death of Josiah (22:10a, 15ff) and the deposing of Jehoahaz (22:10-12). Jehoiakim reigned from 607 to 598 BC. But just a few years into his reign an event of enormous political significance occurred—the forces of Egypt under Pharaoh Necho were crushed by the Babylonians at the battle of Carcemish (46:1-2). This is the time when the hegemony of the Middle East was transferred to Babylon, although this was not obvious for a few years. From this battle on, the prophet Jeremiah insisted upon submission to the suzerainty of Babylon. He did this, not as compromiser with Babylon’s idolatry, but rather as a deadly foe of Judah’s idolatry.
Jehoiakim died in 598 BC, and was replaced by his eighteen-year-old son, Jehoiachin, who reigned three months. He surrendered to the Babylonians, and Nebuchadnezzar then appointed Josiah’s youngest son, Zedekiah. He was a weak and vacillating king who ruled for ten years, until 587 BC. Although under the authority of Babylon, Judah revolted again, a policy which Jeremiah violently opposed. When Jerusalem fell, Nebuchadnezzar treated Jerermiah in a kindly way. The emperor appointed Gedaliah governor of Judah, and Jeremiah joined him at Mizpah (40:1-6). But Gedaliah was soon assassinated, and the people fled to Egypt, contrary to Jeremiah’s word, and they took Jeremiah with them.
PAYING THE PRICE OF FAITHFULNESS
During the course of his ministry, Jeremiah often confronted the cowardice of politicians and the duplicity of kennel-fed prophets. So during the reign of Jehoiakim, Jeremiah assailed the king, the prophets, and the priests, which earned him their enmity. He was persecuted (12:6; 15:15-18). He was plotted against (11:18-23; 18:18). He was thrown in prison 20:2). He was declared worthy of death (26:10-24; 36:26). His written work was destroyed (36:27). During the reign of Zedekiah, he was arrested on a charge of deserting to the enemy, and thrown into a dungeon (37:11-16). Removed to a prison near the palace for a time (37:17-21), he was then thrown into an abandoned cistern, where he would have died but for the kindness of Ebed-melech (38:1-13). After this, a cowardly king conferred with him secretly (14-28). And at the end of his life, a profound patriot, he was carried away from his homeland to die in Egypt.
SHORT CATECHISM FOR LITTLE SAINTS
Sometimes men do not want to hear the word of God. Should we stop speaking it then?
What did Solomon ask God for?
He asked for an understanding heart.
What do we learn from the life of Jeremiah?
We learn to be faithful, regardless of the cost.