From a human assessment, Jeremiah’s ministry could be deemed a failure. For forty years the Lord God had made impassioned appeal through His prophet, seemingly to no avail. The point was reached when there was no remedy, no healing. The people, from the king through to princes, priests, and commoners, were too far gone – too set in their ways. Inevitably, God’s judgements fell, and the Kingdom of Judah terminated (see Ezekiel 21:27). It marked the beginning of the “times of the Gentiles”, when Jerusalem would be trodden down by the Gentiles until that age, or period of time, was fulfilled.
We are living in the end of that age, so there are very powerful lessons for us in the life and message of Jeremiah. The Jews of Jeremiah’s day were typical of human nature in every age. People do not change, they do not want to hear about the end of this world, this system (the Kingdom of Men) – because it means an end of life as they want to live it.
It is an important point for our reflection. The Jews of Jeremiah’s day were God’s people – they should have known better. But they had lost their distinctiveness and sunk into idolatry, apostasy, hypocrisy and materialism. The situation in Jeremiah’s time challenges each one of us individually: Where is our focus? Where are our priorities? Where are our hearts? Are we prepared to meet our Lord – the Righteous Judge of all the Earth?
Although Jeremiah’s efforts seemed to have little effect, all was not in vain. Throughout the dark period of the decline of the nation there survived a small but faithful remnant. This little group was greatly encouraged by Jeremiah’s words and personal example. After seventy years of captivity, a remnant would return, purged from the corruption of idolatry, to make a new start. Under Jeremiah’s guidance a younger generation had grown up in Jerusalem to know, love and respect the Word of God. Men like Daniel and Ezekiel, who in turn, in captivity, would provide sound teaching and inspiring examples for the generation that would eventually return.
From Jeremiah 1:1 we learn that Jeremiah was a priest, the son of Hilkiah, the High Priest who found the Book of the Law (2 Kings 22:8). In verses 2 and 3 we are told that his calling was in the thirteenth year of King Josiah’s reign (BC 627), and that his ministry continued to the eleventh year of King Zedekiah, when the Kingdom of Judah was destroyed by the Babylonians (BC 586) – a period of just over forty years.
In Jeremiah 1 verse 5, Jeremiah was told that long before he was born, God had chosen him for this important task. He was to be a prophet, not just to the Kingdom of Judah but “a prophet unto the nations”. He was called by God and charged with an awesome responsibility. He was to speak God’s Word to Judah and the nations, to his own people and the world. That Word would determine their destinies and because it was God’s Word, it would surely come to pass. And, importantly, whilst making God’s warning very clear to Judah, the Gentile nations would be left in no doubt that it was God, not them, Who was removing His people from the Land. No one had ‘beaten’ God.
Jeremiah 1 verse 6 records Jeremiah’s initial reaction to his calling: ‘Who me? – an obscure priest from Anathoth!?’ “I cannot speak …” – hence Jeremiah is sometimes called ‘The Reluctant Prophet’. Yet when it came to it – he never flinched from proclaiming God’s Word. For forty years he endured affliction, opposition, hatred and physical violence from the people he loved and tried his utmost to save.
Most of us do have a natural reticence and reluctance to do what we know should be done. In much less onerous circumstances than Jeremiah had to endure, we are perhaps not so enthusiastic about preaching a similar message to Jeremiah’s. In His goodness and mercy God is willing to save all who would genuinely turn to Him. But this world order is going to end – and those who reject God will perish with it. Jeremiah is a stirring example of how the Truth can motivate us.
In order to encourage this young man, God gave Jeremiah two visions. The first involved the rod (branch) of an almond tree (Jeremiah 1v11,12). In the Hebrew language the word ‘almond’ comes from the word ‘hasten’ (to be on the lookout, to be awake, to watch). The almond tree is known as ‘The Awakener’ (it is the first of the trees to bud in Israel). It is the tree that signals that something is about to happen. How would this vision help and encourage Jeremiah? He was going to have to proclaim a hard and unpopular message: ‘God’s judgements are coming – unless you repent!’ But in fact there would be no sign of fulfilment until twenty-two years after the start of Jeremiah’s ministry! ‘Reluctant’ Jeremiah would need motivation – despite apparent delay. For those who did listen to Jeremiah’s message those twenty-two years were a time of opportunity whilst the longsuffering God waited (“not willing that any should perish”). Then, in BC 605, judgement began, ending in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem in BC 586. What God had predicted would certainly be fulfilled, and although God’s anger might seem to be ‘sleeping’, it was going to awake.
The second vision involved a pot whose boiling contents were on the point of tipping out. The direction from which this boiling liquid would flow was significant: “a boiling pot, tilting away from the north” (verse 13, New International Version). This is further explained in verse 14: “Out of the north an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land”. The pot was going to tip. A warning was urgently needed. Jeremiah would have to overcome his hesitancy.
God was giving a clear warning of where the judgements would originate, but that caused problems for Jeremiah. For twenty-two years none of his prophecies appeared believable. When he began his ministry there was no serious threat from the north. The power of Assyria was fading. Egypt, in the south, was the regional superpower. Babylon, at that time, was not considered to be a serious contender. For a long time Jeremiah would appear to be a false prophet! There is an indication in that his message of warning was often mocked: “Behold, they say unto me, Where is the word of the Lord? let it come now” (Jeremiah 17v15).
It was evident from the outset that Jeremiah’s message not well received. He began his ministry one year after Josiah commenced his sweeping reforms (BC 627). For the next eighteen years of Josiah’s reign, Jeremiah had the unenviable responsibility of calling people ‘hypocrites’. Why was this necessary? – Surely Josiah’s enthusiastic reforms had some effect? Jeremiah 3v10 reveals the answer: “Judah hath not turned unto me with her whole heart, but feignedly, saith the Lord”. The word “feignedly” means ‘a sham, an outward show’. The people pretended to respond to Josiah, but in reality they did not change.
Jeremiah persisted with his message from God: ‘Unless you genuinely repent and change your ways, judgement is coming. A northern invader will desolate you and take you into captivity.’ Jeremiah was laughed to scorn for twenty-two years – until the 3rd year of Jehoiakim, when the Battle of Carchemish (BC 605) determined Babylon as the dominant superpower – led by Nebuchadnezar. Then Jeremiah’s message changed – Surrender to the Babylonians! To fiercely nationalistic Jews that kind of message was even less popular! Jeremiah was branded as a traitor.
Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem and took a number of the people captive to Babylon, including the young prophet Daniel and his three friends. Jeremiah sent a letter to those taken captive. It said, ‘This is God’s message to you – build houses, plant vineyards, seek the peace of Babylon’. That message prompted a nasty letter in reply from Shemaiah, a false prophet in captivity (Jeremiah 29v25-28). This was typical of the many difficult confrontations Jeremiah would have to endure – not just by nasty letters, but more often in face to face encounters with men angered by his words from God.
So God gave His assurance to His young prophet: “Be not dismayed at their faces” (Jeremiah 1v17) – even though those faces would be full of rage, spitting venom and hatred at him. “Behold I have made thee this day a defenced city” (verse 18) – You, Jeremiah, not the city of Jerusalem. The Lord God continued to make it plain who Jeremiah’s enemies would be – the whole land, kings, princes, priests and people. Jeremiah would be under siege from his own people. But they would ultimately fall – Jeremiah would not: “I am with thee to deliver thee” (verse 19).
There must have been occasions when Jeremiah had cause to doubt that promise. There were times when he was under condemnation to death, scourged and locked in stocks overnight, left to sink in a deep sewer pit. But God always keeps His word – He did deliver His suffering servant.
On one occasion Jesus took his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, near the northern border of Israel. There he asked them the question: “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?” (Matthew 16:13). He received a variety of answers: “John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets”. Though men generally had failed to recognize the Truth which Peter so wonderfully expressed – “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God” – at least some had perceived that the experiences of the Son of Man were remarkably similar to those of Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s life and faithfulness provide very powerful types of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Both were in God’s purpose before their birth. Both received violent opposition from rulers and priests – even from their home village. Their message was unpopular and turned friends into enemies. Both faced traps from their enemies and were falsely accused of treason. Both prophesied the destruction of the Temple and the City, and wept over its inevitable end. Both experienced extremes of suffering and were unjustly sentenced to a cruel death. They both went into a pit that was sealed with a stone but were ultimately saved.
Two verses in the New Testament sum up Jeremiah’s ministry:
“Take, my brethren, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience.” (James 5:10)
“… others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment.” (Hebrews 11:36)
Jeremiah endured many “mockings” during Josiah’s reign, because there was no apparent fulfilment of his prophecies for twenty-two years. But at least, as a friend of the King, he enjoyed a measure of physical protection. When Josiah died as a result of challenging Pharaoh Necho at Megiddo (BC 609), Jeremiah must have thought that the bottom had dropped out of his world. Beside bringing personal grief for a beloved companion, with whom he had worshipped and served God, Josiah’s death marked the intensifying of scorn and persecution for Jeremiah.
The people appointed Josiah’s son Jehoahaz (Shallum) as his successor. He reigned for a brief three months before being deposed by Pharaoh Necho. Pharaoh took him captive to Egypt, where he died. Pharaoh then set up another of Josiah’s sons, Eliakim, as King and changed his name to Jehoiakim. At that point in history Egypt controlled the territory north of Israel. There was no apparent serious threat from Babylon at this time.
Jehoiakim was a selfish, faithless, arrogant king. He cared little for his subjects (God’s people). Jeremiah spoke out courageously against Jehoiakim’s wickedness and was hated by him. We read of an example of some of the physical suffering Jeremiah experienced in Jeremiah chapter 20. Jeremiah had stood in the Temple Court proclaiming this stern warning from God:
“Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will bring upon this city and upon all her towns all the evil that I have pronounced against it, because they have hardened their necks, that they might not hear my words.” (Jeremiah 19:15)
A Temple official, Pashur, heard those words and attacked Jeremiah. The word “smote” in Jeremiah 20:2 literally means ‘scourged’ – a very vicious form of whipping. (The Lord Jesus was scourged by the Romans). Then Pashur secured Jeremiah’s arms and legs in stocks overnight. In the morning Jeremiah told Pashur that God had changed his name to “Magormissabib” (verse 3), which means ‘fear on every side’. Jeremiah 20 verse 4 explains the reason for this name change – Pashur, and others like him would either be killed or taken captive by the army of Babylon. Interestingly this is the first specific mention of Babylon in the Book of Jeremiah. Within a few years this prophecy was fulfilled. A dramatic change came over the world. Babylon, under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar became the dominant superpower and invaded Israel from the north. At last there was a measure of respect for Jeremiah’s prophecies – at least from some.
Jehoiakim became Nebuchadnezzar’s servant for three years, then he rebelled. Nebuchadnezzar came to Jerusalem again and Jehoiakim lost his life. Jehoiakim’s son Jehoiachin lasted three months before surrendering to Nebuchadnezzar and being deported to Babylon (along with Ezekiel, Mordecai and most of the skilled men of Judah). Nebuchadnezzar installed Zedekiah on the throne, who remained under tribute to Babylon for about nine years. Then he rebelled against the rule of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar dealt fiercely with this rebellion. He besieged Jerusalem in the ninth year of Zedekiah. It was a terrible time for the inhabitants of Jerusalem lasting eighteen months and resulting in widespread famine.
Jeremiah chapter 38 describes a particularly horrifying ordeal that Jeremiah experienced towards the end of this time of siege. It resulted from his words recorded in verses 1-3. The men that are named in verse 1 are effectively the War Cabinet. They are in a desperate position of siege, with a weak king on the throne. Jeremiah’s prophecies about the fathers and grandfathers of these men have come true. Some have already been taken into captivity, and some have died. They see every reason to persecute Jeremiah. They press Zedekiah to pronounce the death sentence on Jeremiah. They say that Jeremiah is weakening the people and the men of war by his words: “This man seeketh not the welfare of this people, but the hurt” (verse 4). That’s the way they saw the situation – but in fact the opposite was true. If only they would listen to God’s words through His prophet the people would not suffer hurt.
Zedekiah gave in to their demands (like Pontius Pilate did at the trial of Jesus) and a slow, horrible death was planned for Jeremiah (verses 5,6). He was lowered by ropes into a deep sewer pit. There was no water in the pit – just a thick layer of stinking mud. His enemies then closed off the mouth of the pit with a large stone. Jeremiah was buried alive! But God does not forget His promises – “I am with thee to deliver thee” (Jeremiah 1:19).
In Jeremiah chapter 38 verses 7-10, we read how God provided Ebed-melech, an Ethiopian eunuch, to save Jeremiah’s life. Ebed-melech went bravely to Zedekiah and pleaded to be allowed to help Jeremiah. Zedekiah granted his request. In verse 11 we see the care and thoughtfulness that Ebed-melech demonstrated. The suction of the mud would be strong. Jeremiah had been up to his armpits in damp slime for some time. His flesh would be softened and easily torn. So Ebed-melech ensured that the ropes were padded with old pieces of cloth, and they pulled Jeremiah out.
Earlier we saw how Jeremiah was recognised as a type of Christ. In many of his experiences Jeremiah foreshadowed the way in which Christ would suffer and be rejected by men. For example, Psalm 69 is prophetic of the sufferings of Christ and gives us a very personal insight into how the Lord Jesus felt. Some verses of this Psalm are particularly relevant to Jeremiah’s experience in the pit (see verses 1-4,7,8,11,12,14,15).
Why were the emotions, the suffering and death of Christ prophetically described in terms of an experience Jeremiah had to endure? In a sense God was answering a question that was in the minds of all the prophets. ‘Jeremiah – Do you want to know how men will treat My Son? They will treat him more severely than they have treated you! But your life’s experiences will be a strength to him. Your example of faith and patient endurance will be a great encouragement. Just as I did not leave you in the pit, I will raise up My Son – your very name is a testimony to this – ‘Raised up by YAH’. And though seemingly your ministry has not achieved much success, it has, and a faithful remnant will come out from captivity’. “Thus saith the Lord; Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears: for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord; and they shall come again from the land of the enemy. And there is hope in thine end, saith the Lord, that thy children shall come again to their own border” (Jeremiah 31:16,17).
But God’s promise went far beyond seventy years – to the time when He will make a New Covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah:
“This shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, 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. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33,34)
Jeremiah will be raised from the dust to see that wonderful fulfilment and to live for ever in the Kingdom with the Son of God. He will see the travail of his soul and be satisfied that his labour was not in vain.