A Short Biography

Jeremiah was born into a priestly family, about 650 BC in the small village of Anathoth, a short distance northeast of Jerusalem. There is no record of Jeremiah serving in a priestly capacity. Instead he is reported to have started his prophetic work as a young man around the year 626 BC, under King Josiah–last of a short list of Kings of Judah who are rated by the Bible as “good kings.”

Just a few years later, in 621 BC, King Josiah instituted far-reaching reforms based upon a dusty scroll of laws discovered in the Temple of Jerusalem in the course of building repairs (the scroll was probably Deuteronomy or some part of Deuteronomy, as we have it now). Josiah’s program constituted what has been called “the Deuteronomic reforms.” It mandated strict adherence to the Law for all, it banned idolatry and related pagan practices. It decreed the centralization of all sacrificial rites in the Temple at Jerusalem and it made some effort to establish social justice along the lines advocated by earlier prophets, such as Amos and Hosea.

After King Josiah’s death in 609 BC, however, Judah soon found itself darkening under the growing shadow of Babylonian power, which caused many of Josiah’s reforms to be ignored. At the same time, Josiah’s son, Jehoiakim, proved to be a far less capable leader than his father. So even as “the fish rots from the head” [a Greek folk saying], virtually all of the political and religious leaders of Judah likewise lapsed into apostasy through arrogance with abusive and corrupt behaviour, bad judgment, believing what they wanted to believe, ignoring and even attacking the true oracles of God.

Into this terrible stew walked the unforgettable, [possibly emaciated] figure of Jeremiah–the “weeping prophet,” the reluctant prophet, the prophet afflicted with self doubt and the prophet told by God to not marry and not to have any children who nevertheless followed the prophets’ ethos to his last breath: “Go anywhere, anytime, to anyone I will tell you to speak my words to. Do not be afraid.” (paraphrased from Jer.1:7-9)

Jeremiah’s faithful prophesying triggered a plethora of plots against him, from seemingly everyone. Unhappy with Jeremiah’s message–possibly out of concern that it would shut down the Anathoth sanctuary–Jeremiah’s own priestly relatives back in Anathoth conspired to kill him. However, the LORD revealed the conspiracy to Jeremiah, protected his life and declared disaster for the men of Anathoth. When Jeremiah complained to God about this persecution, he was told that the attacks on him would become even worse.

A priest named Pashur–the son of a temple official in Jerusalem–had Jeremiah beaten and put in the stocks at the Upper Gate of Benjamin for a day. (Jer.20:2) After this, Jeremiah laments the travails and mockery that speaking God’s word has brought down on his head. At the same time he recounts how, if he tries to shut God’s word inside, “it burns in his heart and he is unable to hold it in.”

During the reign of King Zedekiah–last sitting king of Judah–God instructed Jeremiah to make a yoke, with the message that Judah would soon be subject to the king of Babylon. A rival prophet named Hananiah yanked the yoke off Jeremiah’s neck and broke it in pieces, prophesying that within two years the LORD would break the yoke of the king of Babylon. But Jeremiah prophesied in return: “You have broken the yokes of wood, but you have made instead yokes of iron.” (Jer.28:13 NASB) Before long, Jeremiah would be vindicated as the true prophet of God.

After Jeremiah prophesied that Jerusalem would be handed over to the Babylonian army, the king’s officials, including Pashur the priest, tried to convince King Zedekiah that Jeremiah should be put to death for demoralizing the soldiers and the people. Zedekiah gave them permission, and they cast Jeremiah into an abandoned cistern, where he sank down into the mud. The intent seemed to be to kill Jeremiah by starvation, while allowing the officials to claim to be innocent of his blood. However, an Ethiopian eunuch named Ebed-melech rescued Jeremiah by pulling him out of the cistern and placed him in a less confining and deadly place. But Jeremiah remained imprisoned there until Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian army in August.587 BC.

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

But Gedaliah was assassinated by an Israelite prince in the pay of Ammon [roughly present-day Jordan] “for working with the Babylonians.” Jeremiah was then taken against his will to Egypt by some of the Jews who feared swift reprisal from the Babylonians. Even in Egypt Jeremiah continued to rebuke his fellow exiles, seeking in vain to turn them back to God. Jeremiah probably died about 570 BC. There is no authentic record of his death in the Bible, but according to Jewish Rabbinical tradition, he was stoned to death in Egypt by his exasperated fellow countrymen.

So what’s the significance of this thumbnail sketch of Jeremiah?

Jeremiah’s contributions of to both Jewish and Christian understanding are far beyond the scope of this short biographical sketch. Here are just three top-line lessons that Jeremiah conveys to us through his extraordinary life and example:

In Jeremiah’s case, Sufferings equal Obedience Unto Death. Would that we should be so faithful unto death, so willing to convey the words of God, the truth of God and the grace and love of God as our “vapour” of life permits.

By enduring this suffering and not giving up his ministry, Jeremiah and the other prophets foreshadowed and shared in the sufferings of Christ, of whom they spoke.

We too may have to undergo sufferings for the sake of Christ, and thus become partakers in his sufferings. (1 Pet.4:12-14; James 5:10; Acts 5:41) If and when that should occur, will we be up to the challenge? And until that occurs, will we be found busy doing the Lord’s work?