The book of Jeremiah is the largest book by one author in the whole Bible. It is a challenging book because, apart from its size, it is the book most judgemental of God’s people. It is also a chronological nightmare to work through! But despite this, it is inspired, so its design is God-given. It has been constructed that way to convey a message and to understand this message, it is necessary to search out the theme that its God-given arrangement displays.

Many brethren have written valuable information on individual chapters, but no attempt has been made to link these chapters to a common theme which brings out the essential message of the book. I puzzled for years trying to pick up the theme, then as a last resort I turned to writing verse notes to get the flow of thought. By the time I had completed 20 chapters, a theme did emerge.

We must start by getting a clear concept of the situation in Judah when Jeremiah was commissioned as a prophet. The majority of the 55-year reign of Manasseh was spent expunging the worship of Yahweh. Though he spent a short time at the last trying to redeem the situation, Amon’s two years were spent undoing the little he may have done. Then the boy Josiah was eight years on the throne before he was mature enough to know where he was going and began serving Yahweh. Another five years had passed by the time he had gotten a religious reform going.

So, for 65 years idolatry had been inculcated in the nation and we can add five more years until Josiah’s reform started. The task of restoring true worship to the nation fell on the shoulders of two young men—Josiah (who was 21 years old) and Jeremiah (who was probably about 20 years old). For the next 18 years while Josiah was on the throne the people’s animosity towards Jeremiah was not free to vent itself, but when Josiah’s wayward sons came to the throne the pent-up animosity burst upon Jeremiah. Despite his best intention, Josiah only succeeded in removing the physical traces of idolatry but he couldn’t touch the people’s hearts. Idolatry continued ruling supreme.

Another significant event happened five years after Jeremiah was commissioned—the book of the Law of Moses was found (2 Chron 34:8,14). For 75 years God’s word had been out of use. These 75 years started from the death of Hezekiah, which means that Hezekiah’s attempt to overcome idolatry was tragically wiped out by his descendants. All that the people knew of true worship was what was in their historical books and what was verbally handed down from generation to generation by idolaters. This background forms the historical setting of the book of Jeremiah.

The man Jeremiah introduced

We get our first insight into the book of Jeremiah when we read the very first verse of the opening chapter. Look at the way Jeremiah is introduced: “Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, of the priests that were in Anathoth”. Jeremiah and his father are presented as just common members of the Anathoth group of priests. What do we know of the priests of Anathoth? Very little up to this point. What we do know, is that it was the home of the family of Eli, the rejected high priest (1 Kings 2:26). This would tend to indicate that Jeremiah’s father was not Hilkiah the high priest who found the book of the Law (2 Chron 34:15).

The prophet is introduced to the nation as ‘a nobody.’ In fact, he is described as being very self-conscious of his own inability to handle the work God was requiring of him. There was nothing to mark him out as somebody important. And this was just what God wanted. Jeremiah was not someone who would command attention. If anything was to command attention it would be the message he delivered: God’s message. Also, if he was descended from Eli, then this would underscore the certainty of God’s promises against disobedience. If God brought about the demise of Eli’s house through that one man’s waywardness, He could bring about the collapse of the whole house of Judah through the nation’s rebellion against God. Here is the first key point—the focus must be on the message not the man.

Both Jeremiah and Moses protested their inexperience at being called to the work (cp Jer 1:6; Exod 4:10-16). Though they came from opposite ends of the social scale, they both were very humble men and were both dedicated to God. Humility and dedication have nothing to do with worldly training and status; they have everything to do with our relationship with God. Jeremiah had no confidence in himself, yet he was fearless in serving God. Both men laboured with a hostile people for 40 years. Moses was cast into a river and Jeremiah was cast into a pit. Moses was saved by a maidservant and Jeremiah was saved by a slave. Both prayed for Israel’s salvation. Indeed, Jeremiah was so committed to the salvation of the nation that God had to tell him to stop praying for them; they had gone too far. He was so committed to God he took on God’s viewpoint; so much so that at times it is hard to know who is speaking, God or Jeremiah.

Moses had led the people out of Egypt in Yahweh’s ultimate act of deliverance, but the book of Jeremiah recounts the reversal of that redemption when the prophet is forced to return to Egypt with a group of Judean refugees (Jer 43:1-7). Even though Moses and Jeremiah were faithful servants of Yahweh, they both ended their lives outside the land of promise (Jer 43:6; Deut 1:37; 3:27; 4:21). The prophet called the king and the people back to the standards of justice that were set forth in the book of Deuteronomy (Jer 7:6-9; 22:1-5; 34:12-17; cp Deut 5:7-21; 6:13,14; 15:12-18; 24:19-21).

Jeremiah is commissioned in chapter 1 to deliver Yahweh’s message to Judah. God could have spoken directly to the leaders of Judah, but he had a very good reason for not doing this. He had spoken directly to the nation at Sinai, and on that occasion they were terrified and had pleaded with Him not to speak directly to them, but to deliver the message through His servant Moses. God had accepted this plea and He was still abiding by it. He would speak through his servant Jeremiah.

The basis of God’s message through Jeremiah

Chapter 2 is the start of Jeremiah’s words to Judah. Yahweh’s mind goes back to Sinai and the covenant He made with Israel and Israel’s acceptance of the terms of that relationship. He describes it as a marriage covenant and remembers Israel’s willingness to accept it (v2-3). In this way it commenced as a happy marriage between God and His people. Yahweh had promised to be their provider and protector and they had promised to love, honour and obey.

Sadly, the marriage soon entered troublous times. As the first responsibility for the welfare of the marriage falls to the husband, Yahweh looks to how He played His part. He had done all He could and He would not give up labouring for the people until He could make that marriage work again. He would honour His marriage commitment.

Chapter 3 deals with the nation’s faithlessness and the need for them to acknowledge their sin and turn back to their Husband. Up to this point in time, the only knowledge of God’s law and covenant known by Jeremiah and the people was that which had been handed down verbally for at least 70 years. But now suddenly a copy of the law and the covenant had been found and all that Jeremiah had been saying was seen to be in accordance with the words of Moses.

In chapter 4 verse 28 God reminds Judah that the judgments He is delineating through Jeremiah are not new: “I havespoken it, I have purposed it, and will not repent, neither will I turn back from it.” He had outlined His blessings and cursings previously in the book of Deuteronomy and they had become the terms of the marriage covenant. God had spoken and the people had accepted. “All that Yahweh hath spoken we will do” they exclaimed (Exod 19:8). The nation had entered into the relationship voluntarily and had accepted the conditions of that marriage agreement. God had declared and the nation had acceded, and now God would carry out the terms of the marriage contract. This is the theme of the book.

The Prophet like unto Moses

The finding of the law and Josiah’s subsequent reforms provides a key to understanding the book of Jeremiah. To exhaust all opportunity of rescuing the nation from judgment, it was needful for Yahweh to deal as directly as He could with the people. Through the work of Moses, He succeeded in bringing Israel out of Egypt from the presence of the idols they had grown up with. Now, He would work with the nation in a similar manner. He would do exactly what he had told Israel He would do and that was to raise up a prophet like unto Moses.

Here is the promise He made: “I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him” (Deut 18:18-19). We know this had an ultimate reference to Christ, but there was a partial and preliminary fulfilment in the work of Jeremiah.

Hence when Jeremiah was called to the prophetic office this identical language was used: “But the Lord said unto me, Say not, I am a child: for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak… Then the Lord put forth his hand, and touched my mouth. And the Lord said unto me, Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth” (1:7-9). In this way Jeremiah was to be a second Moses to lead the people in a spiritual exodus from idolatry and reconfirm the terms of the marriage covenant.

Jeremiah, like Moses, felt inadequate. This was exactly what Yahweh was seeking; one whose whole confidence was in the God of Israel. Both men were sent to an idolatrous nation to make them God’s people. Both spoke the words of Yahweh in calling the people back to true worship. Through Jeremiah, Yahweh was calling Israel back to the marriage covenant and making it very clear that He will never break His word.

Yahweh has spoken

The chapter breakup of the book of Jeremiah is not chronological, but it is the way God intended it to be to convey the meaning He desired to impart.

As is usual in the prophets the opening verses of the opening chapter provide the clue as to what the book is about. Yahweh speaks to Jeremiah in verse 5 and tells him that He ordained him a prophet before he was born. Though Jeremiah expresses his inadequacy in verses 7-10, he is told he will be God’s spokesman speaking the words God puts in his mouth. He will carry God’s decrees and judgments to the nations. God will speak through him.

The phrase “the word of the Lord” occurs 52 times in the book of Jeremiah. The Hebrew word dabar (noun: word; verb: to speak) occurs 287 times. Indeed, how true it is that “Yahweh hath spoken”.

God had spoken to the nation at Sinai and the people had asked that He not speak with them directly but through an intermediary. Through Moses He had outlined the terms of the covenant to them, particularly the second covenant with its attendant blessings and cursings. He had also spoken through the prophets in the time of Hezekiah. Now he was speaking to them through a prophet who not only spoke God’s words but also manifested God’s emotions and desires toward them.

The entire book of Jeremiah is truly the Word of God—but as well as expressing the mind and feeling of God, it also was an expression of Jeremiah himself. There is a uniting of God and Jeremiah both in action and in feeling in the work of trying to get Judah to make an honest return to the covenant.