Jeremiah: Background

I want to read the book of Jeremiah this semester. You want to join me? Once a week, each week, I’ll take a section, and try to comment on and illuminate some of the verses. I’ll make a meager attempt to share what I hear the Spirit speaking to me in the text.

So a few notes to introduce Jeremiah. Jeremiah is part of the Old Testament sometimes referred to as the “Latter Prophets,” which include Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Book of the Twelve (or the twelve minor prophets).

Contrary to popular opinion, the prophets of the Old Testament were not primarily concerned with predicting the future. Rather, the function was message delivery, whatever it might be, for God. In the ancient world, there were no media news outlets for kings to communicate with their people, and a king would never directly communicate with a common individual. Instead, a king would broadcast through a herald or messenger. Think of Hermes in Greek mythology. Or the Mouth of Sauron in the Lord of Rings functions the same way.

There was a very particular formula that kings would use. The herald would always begin with, “Thus says the great king…” And if you heard this, you knew you were hearing the direct words of the king. And so using this ancient social convention, God communicates with his people in the Old Testament.

The Jews of the Old Testament would never have expected to hear God speak directly to them individually the way you or I might. But when they heard one of the prophets announce, “Thus says the LORD…” They knew to stop and pay attention.

After the death of Solomon the people of God split into two nations, the northern kingdom called Israel or Ephraim and the southern kingdom called Judah. Two hundred years later the northern kingdom Israel was destroyed by Assyria. Jeremiah lived a hundred years after that, and his ministry to the southern kingdom Judah spanned 627-585 BC.

No other period of Jewish history experienced such a traumatic social, political, and religious upheaval. In Jeremiah’s lifetime King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem multiple times, deposing more than one king, before finally in 587 BC destroying the city’s walls, burning the temple to ground, and what people were not massacred were marched to the far off nation of Babylon.

This is Jeremiah’s world, and were you a survivor carted off to Babylon, you might be wondering how could God have let this happen, if you could convince yourself that God even existed at all.

And this is why I think Jeremiah matters so much to you and me. While it talks about stuff that happened 2500 years ago on the the other side of the world in a culture radically different from ours, I know I can relate to having experiences crying out to God from the rubble of unanswered prayers and God-where-are-yous. Jeremiah helps us understand where God is when the world is falling down all around us, and he offers us hope that our story, like Israel’s at this point, isn’t finished yet.

When approaching any book of the Bible, I find it really helpful to break it up into smaller chunks, and so Jeremiah has about 4 big pieces we can divide into several smaller, manageable pieces, as follows:

Oracles of Judgment against Judah and Jerusalem (chs. 1-25)

Introduction (1:1-19)

Oracles against Judah’s Idolatry (2:1-6:30)

More Oracles against Idolatry (7:1-10:25)

The Broken Covenant (11:1-13:27)

Yahweh’s Rejection of His People (14:1-17:27)

Symbols and Laments (18:1-20:18)

Judgment against Kings and Prophets (21:1-24:10)

Summary of Part I and Anticipation of Part 4 (25:1-38)

God’s Word Offers Hope but Is Rejected (chs. 26-36)

Reaction to Jeremiah’s Temple Sermon (26:1-24)

Jeremiah and the False Prophets (27:1-29:32)

Promised Restoration and a New Covenant (30:1-33:26)

Zedekiah, Jehoiakim, and Jeremiah’s Scroll (34:1-36:32)

The Fall of Jerusalem and Its Aftermath (chs. 37-45)

Jeremiah and Court Politics (37:1-38:28)

Jeremiah and the Fall of Jerusalem (39:1-41:15)

Jeremiah and the Flight to Egypt (41:16-45:5)

Oracles against the Nations (chs. 46-51)

The Doom of Egypt (46:1-28)

The Doom of Judah’s Neighbors (47:1-49:39)

The Doom of Babylon (50:1-51:64)

An Epilogue (ch. 52)

(this outline can be found in How to Read the Bible Book by Book by Godon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, pp. 186-194).

So next week we’ll get started in the text and look at 1:1-19.


About peterjwhite

I am a pastor to college students in Tulsa, OK.
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