Jeremiah: The Reluctant Firebrand (Part 2)

Jeremiah wrote the longest book of prophecy in the Bible, full of more biographical insights than any other. To summarise it is to do it an injustice, but here it is anyway.

The prophet’s early messages to the people were condemnations and calls for repentance. He saw the coming of a foe from the north, symbolised by a boiling pot facing from that direction.The religious reforms of Josiah must have presented something of a quandary. Clearly, he agreed with them; he urged adherence to the ancient covenant upon “the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” But he saw them all come to nothing – nationally, anyway.

Early in the reign of Jehoiakim, Jeremiah delivered what is sometimes called his ‘temple sermon’. He denounced the people for their dependence on the temple for security and called on them to make genuine changes. He predicted that God would destroy the temple of Jerusalem if they continued in their present path. Jeremiah was immediately arrested and tried on a capital charge. He was sentenced to death, but acquitted.

Jehoiakim’s reign was an active and difficult period in Jeremiah’s life. He denounced the king harshly for his selfishness, materialism, and social injustice. Following the battle of Carchemish, Jeremiah realised that the world had changed and dictated to his loyal scribe a scroll containing the messages he had delivered. The scroll was read by Baruch to King Jehoiakim, who cut it into pieces and burned it, so Jeremiah went into hiding and dictated a replacement with additions.

When Jehoiakim withheld tribute from the Babylonians, Jeremiah began to warn the Judaeans that they would be destroyed at the hands of those who had previously been their friends. When the king persisted in resisting Babylonia, Nebuchadnezzar sent an army to besiege Jerusalem. King Jehoiakim died before the siege began and was succeeded by his son, Jehoiachin, who was taken to Babylon with many of his subjects.

At one point during this period, obeying Yahweh’s instruction, Jeremiah possibly travelled all the way to Babylonia with a clean, white, priestly garment, which he then buried by the Euphrates River. He returned home and then, later, went back to find the garment now ruined – good for nothing. Presumably he brought it back as a sign of what the priesthood was to become. Two round trips to the Euphrates – approximately 2500 kilometres; maybe six months’ travel – just to prove a point. Did anyone take any notice? Did anything change? What a waste of time it must have seemed to many.

Following Jehoiachin, the Babylonians placed Zedekiah on the throne of Judah, a king favourable to them. He was more inclined to follow Jeremiah’s counsel than Jehoiakim had been, but was weak and vacillating and his court was torn by conflict between pro-Babylonian and pro-Egyptian parties. After paying Babylon tribute for nearly 10 years, the king made an alliance with Egypt and, for a second time, Nebuchadnezzar sent an army to Jerusalem, this time to conquer it completely.

During Zedekiah’s reign, Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles in Babylon, advising them not to expect to return immediately to their homeland, which was what the false prophets were encouraging them to believe, but rather to settle peaceably in their place of exile and seek the welfare of their captors. Jeremiah put a yoke on his neck and went around proclaiming that Judah and the surrounding states should submit to the yoke of Babylonia, for it was Yahweh who had given them into the hand of its king.

When the siege of Jerusalem was temporarily lifted at the approach of an Egyptian force, Jeremiah was arrested on a charge of desertion and placed in prison. Subsequently he was placed in an abandoned cistern, where he would have died had it not been for the prompt action of an Ethiopian eunuch, Ebed-melech, who, with the king’s permission, rescued the prophet. Zedekiah summoned him from prison twice for secret interviews, and both times Jeremiah advised him to surrender to Babylon.

Late in Zedekiah’s reign, amid the dark clouds of the impending final overthrow of Judah, Jeremiah’s cousin, Hanameel, visited him in prison in Jerusalem. He had a strange request. Apparently short of money, he asked Jeremiah to buy a block of land in Anathoth from him. What sort of a real estate offer was this? Jeremiah was locked in prison with little hope of release; Nebuchadnezzar’s armies besieged the city anyway, and soon the whole country would belong to Babylon. Hanameel must surely have been shocked when his cousin agreed to a deal.

Not only that, but he paid a fair price and made certain that the sale was recorded in duplicate and the Deed of Purchase securely stored in a clay jar by his great friend, Baruch. Jeremiah afterwards prayed, acknowledging Yahweh’s righteousness, confessing Israel’s failure, and advising of his purchase. In reply, God in effect guaranteed Jeremiah that his Deed of Purchase would survive not only the Babylonian captivity, but that it would be valid for eternity. He explained to the prophet that it was a symbol of the certainty of Israel’s return from captivity.

When Jerusalem finally fell, Jeremiah was released from prison by the Babylonians and offered safe conduct to Babylon – but he preferred to remain with his own people. He was entrusted to Gedaliah, a Judaean from a prominent family, whom the Babylonians appointed as governor of the province of Judah. The prophet continued to oppose those who wanted to rebel against Babylon.

After Gedaliah was assassinated, Jeremiah was taken against his will to Egypt by some of the Jews who feared reprisal from the Babylonians. Even in Egypt he continued to rebuke his fellow exiles. According to a tradition, he was stoned to death by his exasperated fellow countrymen in Egypt.

What a life! Who would want to live it? It seems almost to be the life summed up in the New Testament as a “trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment.” Not since Job had anyone used the words of utter despair that Jeremiah wrote. “Why, oh why, was I ever born,” lamented an almost broken man.

And like Job, in some of his darkest hours, there was no immediate relief; for a time, no balancing words of goodness with all that severity; just suffering piled upon suffering, and reproach upon reproach.

But oh, what consolations there were, too. It was, in the end, a great life, and the greatest type of life – a life of triumphant faith under crippling trial. A life that saw the deep darkness of the human heart and so decided to trust in God instead. The result? Jeremiah experienced the Word of Yahweh literally burning in his own heart like a fire. So much so that the only relief he could find in life was to speak it – loud and clear, all his life.

Jeremiah found God’s Word irresistible.

And a life in many ways must be measured by its results, not just by its days. In Jeremiah’s case, though he had no wife or offspring, yet he really was given a generation. The generation that were taken to Babylon – or at least the best of them: the “good figs”—and the generation that returned.

The book of Jeremiah is famous for being hard to analyse chronologically. Ezekiel and Daniel, two of his students, were quite the opposite when they wrote. But despite this, or perhaps because of it, there was one number that jumped from its pages: 70 years. It was seared into the minds of every faithful man and woman who went in chains to Babylon. They worked out when it began, and when it would end. Daniel probably convinced Cyrus to change world history because of it. Haggai and Zechariah enthused the people to rebuild the temple because of it. It was, in its own way, the bright light of good news for the faithful during those long years in a land of spiritual darkness.

Perhaps Jeremiah wasn’t given quite the grandeur of Isaiah’s greatest discourses, but he had a gravitas all of his own. To him was given to record the wonderful example of the Rechabites: 250 years of family faith. To him was given the profound analogy of the potter. How much deep understanding has emerged from that one simple idea? And did anyone in Old Testament Israel proclaim the new covenant quite like Jeremiah did?: “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah…I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people…For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Somewhere in the Middle East lies whatever remains of Jeremiah the prophet. And somewhere, there also lies whatever is left of the Deed of Purchase for the block of land he bought, but probably never set foot on. One day, soon, they will be reunited. The lamentations will be over, and the joy will last forever.