The Book of Jeremiah combines history, biography, and prophecy. It portrays a nation in crisis and introduces the reader to an extraordinary leader upon whom the Lord placed the heavy burden of the prophetic office. Jeremiah was born about 650 B.C. of a priestly family from the little village of Anathoth, near Jerusalem. While still very young he was called to his task in the thirteenth year of King Josiah (628), whose reform, begun with enthusiasm and hope, ended with his death on the battlefield of Megiddo (609) as he attempted to stop the northward march of the Egyptian Pharaoh Neco.
The prophet heartily supported the reform of the pious King Josiah, which began in 629 B.C. Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, fell in 612, preparing the way for the new colossus, Babylon, which was soon to put an end to Judean independence.
After the death of Josiah the old idolatry returned. Jeremiah opposed it with all his strength. Arrest, imprisonment, and public disgrace were his lot. Jeremiah saw in the nation’s impenitence the sealing of its doom. Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem and carried King Jehoiachin into exile (⇒ Jeremiah 22:24).
During the years 598-587, Jeremiah attempted to counsel Zedekiah in the face of bitter opposition. The false prophet Hananiah proclaimed that the yoke of Babylon was broken and a strong pro-Egyptian party in Jerusalem induced Zedekiah to revolt. Nebuchadnezzar took swift and terrible vengeance; Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 and its leading citizens sent into exile. About this time Jeremiah uttered the great oracle of the “New Covenant” (⇒ Jeremiah 31:31-34) sometimes called “The Gospel before the Gospel.” This passage contains his most sublime teaching and is a landmark in Old Testament theology.
The prophet remained amidst the ruins of Jerusalem, but was later forced into Egyptian exile by a band of conspirators. There, according to an old tradition, he was murdered by his own countrymen. The influence of Jeremiah was greater after his death than before. The exiled community read and meditated on the lessons of the prophet, and his influence can be seen in Ezekiel, certain of the psalms, and the second part of Isaiah. Shortly after the exile, the Book of Jeremiah as we have it today was published in a final edition.
It is divided as follows:
- Historical Appendix (⇒ Jeremiah 52:1-34)
The words of Jeremiah, son of Hilkiah, of a priestly family in Anathoth, 1 in the land of Benjamin.
The word of the LORD first came to him in the days of Josiah, son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign,
2 and continued through the reign of Jehoiakim, son of Josiah, king of Judah, and until the downfall and exile of Jerusalem in the fifth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah, son of Josiah, king of Judah.
The word of the LORD came to me thus:
3 Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.
4 “Ah, Lord GOD!” I said, “I know not how to speak; I am too young.”
But the LORD answered me, Say not, “I am too young.” To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak.
Have no fear before them, because I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.
Then the LORD extended his hand and touched my mouth, saying, See, I place my words in your mouth!
This day I set you over nations and over kingdoms, To root up and to tear down, to destroy and to demolish, to build and to plant.
5 The word of the LORD came to me with the question: What do you see, Jeremiah? “I see a branch of the watching-tree,” I replied.
Then the LORD said to me: Well have you seen, for I am watching to fulfill my word.
6 A second time the word of the LORD came to me with the question: What do you see? “I see a boiling cauldron,” I replied, “that appears from the north.”
And from the north, said the LORD to me, evil will boil over upon all who dwell in the land.
Lo, I am summoning all the kingdoms of the north, says the LORD; Each king shall come and set up his throne at the gateways of Jerusalem, Opposite her walls all around and opposite all the cities of Judah.
I will pronounce my sentence against them for all their wickedness in forsaking me, And in burning incense to strange gods and adoring their own handiwork.
But do you gird your loins; stand up and tell them all that I command you. Be not crushed on their account, as though I would leave you crushed before them;
For it is I this day who have made you a fortified city, A pillar of iron, a wall of brass, against the whole land: Against Judah’s kings and princes, against its priests and people.
They will fight against you, but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.
1  Anathoth: a village about three miles northeast of Jerusalem, where Solomon exiled Abiathar (⇒ 1 Kings 2:26-27); it is probable that Jeremiah belonged to the priestly family of Abiathar.
2  Until the downfall: these words were originally prefixed as a title to a collection of Jeremiah’s prophecies which lacked Jer 40-44. The new title in ⇒ Jeremiah 40:1 and the oracles that follow clearly show that Jeremiah continued to prophesy after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.
3  Jeremiah was destined to the office of prophet before his birth; cf ⇒ Isaiah 49:1, 5; ⇒ Luke 1:15; ⇒ Gal 1:15, ⇒ 16. I knew you: I loved you and chose you. I dedicated you: I set you apart to be a prophet. Some Fathers and later theologians understand this to mean that Jeremiah was freed from original sin before his birth. The context does not justify this conclusion. The nations: the pagan neighbors of Judah, besides the great world powers-Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt-intimately associated with Judah’s destiny.
4  I am too young: Jeremiah’s youth (he was less than thirty years old) must not be an obstacle to the responsibilities of the prophetic office; God will supply for his human defects (cf ⇒ Jeremiah 1:7, 8).
5  The watching-tree: the almond tree, which is the first to blossom in the springtime as though it had not slept. The Hebrew name contains a play on words with “I am watching.”
6  Boiling cauldron . . . the north: symbol of an invasion from the north; cf ⇒ Jeremiah 1:14-15.