The tiny kingdom of Judah was sandwiched between to super-powers, Egypt and Assyria. For a century, the nation had been part of the Assyrian empire, force to pay homage and an annual tribute on pain of severe punishment for default. The southern nation of Israel had revolted against this regime and found herself non-existent as a kingdom by 721. Hezekiah had swept away the idolatry and rebelled against Assyrian rule, but in return the country was reduced by Sennacherib the Assyrian to a wasteland, Isa 1:7-8. As a result of Hezekiah’s and Isaiah’s faith, Jerusalem itself was miraculously spared the devastation. Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh, however, broke completely with the godly tradition of his father.
Under the reign of Manasseh, Judah had reverted to Canaanite and Assyrian idolatry, to human sacrifice, and to black magic. A treaty-tablet, drawn up in 672, names Manasseh king of Judah as a vassal swearing allegiance to the Assyrian god Asshur. It was during the last years of Manasseh’s reign that Josiah (b. 648) and Jeremiah were born. The early chapters of Jeremiah reveal a people still saturated in idolatry and immoral practices, some 15 years after Manasseh’s death. These two, the reforming king and the outspoken prophet, ‘were to give their country its finest opportunity of renewal and its last hope of surviving as the kingdom of David.’ (Kidner) The young king Josiah began to purge the country of idolatry. At about the same time, Jeremiah began his long prophetic ministry.
Josiah’s reforms took him down into Israel and to Jerusalem. In 622 he turned his attention to the temple, and rediscovered the forgotten book of the law of Moses. This led to a national renewing of the covenant, and to Jeremiah being sent on a preaching tour of the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem. Of course, the demolition of the pagan altars and the dismissal of the heretical priests led to vigorous opposition and rejection from many, and Jeremiah often felt lost and alone, his very life under threat, Jer 15:10,17. This led him into times of inward wrestling with God. His various pleas and protests are found in chapters 11-20. (eg Jer 11:19 12:3 15:18 20:7-9 ) God gave him strong words of support in his lonely battle, Jer 15:19-20. Jeremiah emerged from his early battles and from his desperate pleading with God as a spiritual veteran, ready for the still sterner tests of his later years. But it was clear to Jeremiah that legal reform alone could not reach the heart of the people. What was needed was a new and better covenant which would lead to new and changed lives.
Jeremiah’s stern message was delivered under the protection of Josiah. Josiah himself found increased freedom to pursue his reforms as the grip of Assyria weakened. But then Egypt took a hand in the proceedings, by marching to the rescue of the besieged Assyrians in the hope of receiving Syria and Palestine as a reward. In 609 Josiah attempted to intercept the Egyptians at Megiddo, but was defeated and killed in battle. Although the Pharoah failed in his mission to relieve the Assyrians, the Egyptians remained in the area for some years, controlling both Syria and Palestine. Then in 605 Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon routed the Egyptians and took control of the whole Near East. It was during the following year (Jer 36:9ff ) that Jeremiah had his collected prophecies read out to the people and the king – only to have them destroyed in the king’s brazier.
Judah was now at the point of self-destruction. Paganism took the upper hand again. Jeremiah himself was flogged and pilloried, 20:2 and nearly killed, 26:10ff. Jehoiakim rebelled against Nebuchadrezzar, and in 598 was deposed, put in fetters, and died as he was about to be deported to Babylon. His successor, Jeconiah, having barricaded Jerusalem against the Babylonians for three months, was defeated and taken into exile along with the temple treasures and many of the people. Zedekiah was appointed as puppet-king in his place. As for Jeremiah, he was absolutely clear about the will of the Lord, but everything he said seemed to be madness to his hearers. He appeared wearing an ox-yoke and demanding submission to Nebuchadrezzar. He wrote to the captives, preparing them for 70 years in exile and calling for a peaceful attitute towards Babylon, Jer 29:7,10. All this brought further threats on Jeremiah. Then, when Zedekiah broke off his allegience and brought an avenging Babylon to the gates, Jeremiah announced that this was divine judgement, and there was nothing to do but to surrender, Jer 38:17 or flee, Jer 38:2. Jeremiah’s attitude was counted as treason, and he experienced the rigours of the prison, the dungeon, and the miry pit.
While others held out hope of last-minute deliverance as in Hezekiah’s day, Isa 37:36-37 Jer 21:2, Jeremiah held to what had been revealed – the twin certainties of captivity and return. He graphically illustrated his belief in the latter by redeeming some family property in territory that was overrrun by the enemy, Jer 32:6-14,24,25. Jeremiah’s supposed lack of patriotism was contradicted when, having been offered comfortable conditions in Babylon, #Jer 40:4, he choose to stay at Mizpah, in his homeland, amongst the poorest of the poor.
Jeremiah’s time at Mizpah contained only brief respite. An unsuccessful coup made the people panic for fear of Babylonian reprisals. They decided on a mass migration to Egypt. Jeremiah received a word from God to call off the project, on pain of terrible punishment, Jer 42:7ff. This, however, made no impression, and the people set out for Egypt, taking Jeremiah and Baruch with them. ‘Our last glimpse of the prophet and his abdutors is of a confrontation in which his charge of apostasy is thrown back at him with the countercharge that his kind of religion, flouting the age-old cults, had been the source of all their troubles.’ (Kidner)
Within half a century, the first of the Babylonian exiles – but not those who had fled to Egypt – arrived home, and the promises that had accompanied Jeremiah’s warnings were vindicated. Among those who did not live to see that day, but who had stood by Jeremiah during the darkest days, were some of the officials who had defended his ‘Shiloh’ message, Jer 26:10ff, members of the family of Shaphan, Jer 36:10,11,25, and the great-hearted Gedaliah, Jer 40:5-6. Then there was Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, who rescued Jeremiah from the pit, Jer 38:6-13; 39:15-18. But the greatest of Jeremiah’s supporters was Baruch, who wrote out and read out the scroll of prophecies, #Jer 36:4 ff, and was probably instrumental in providing the narrative framework for the book as we have it. The personal cost to him can be detected in ch. 45.