Who was Jeremiah?
Jeremiah, also referred to as the "weeping prophet,” was a Hebrew prophet and reformer, considered one of the major prophets in the canonical collection of Hebrew scriptures called the ‘Hebrew Bible,’ which is the textual source for the Christian ‘Old Testament.’ According to Jewish tradition, Jeremiah, assisted by his scribe and disciple Baruch ben Neriah, wrote the ‘Book of Jeremiah.’ Jeremiah is regarded as the second of the latter prophets in the ‘Hebrew Bible’ and also the second of the prophets in the Christian ‘Old Testament.’ According to the superscription to the book, Jeremiah started his mission as a prophet during the 13th year of the 7th century BCE, when the king of Judah was Josiah (around 627 BC). He completed his mission during the 11th year of King Zedekiah’s rule, which ended in 586 BC, at a time when Jerusalem went into exile (in the 6th month). The actions taken by Jeremiah and also the issues he faced including his imprisonment are detailed in the book. Judaism considers him the second of their major prophets and the book as part of its canon. According to Jewish tradition, Jeremiah was also aided by Baruch ben Neriah in authoring the ‘Books of Kings’ and the ‘Book of Lamentations.’ The latter includes poetic laments and mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem. Jeremiah is also considered a prophet in the Abrahamic monotheistic religions of Christianity and Islam and finds a place in both the ‘New Testament’ and Islamic tradition.
Childhood & Early Life
Jeremiah was born in the 7th century BC, in Anathoth, to a Jewish priest (“kohen”) named Hilkiah who lived in the Benjamite village of Anathoth. He was possibly the same person who was the high priest and had found a lost copy of the ‘Book of the Law’ at a temple in Jerusalem during the reign of King Josiah.
Jeremiah was mentored by prophets Isaiah and Zephaniah. His contemporary prophetess Huldah was one of his relatives. While Jeremiah would preach repentance to men, Hulda did so to women. The elucidation of the difficulties faced by Jeremiah, in the ‘Book of Jeremiah’ and the ‘Book of Lamentations,’ led scholars to tag him as "the weeping prophet.”
According to sources, YHWH called Jeremiah to prophetic ministry in 626 BC for giving his prophecy on the future destruction of Jerusalem by invaders from the north. The reason for this was the unfaithfulness of Israel toward the laws of the covenant and their worship of “Baal,” abandoning God. Jeremiah censured the people for sacrificing their children as offerings to the Canaanite god Moloch through fire. It is regarded that Jeremiah, under the guidance of God, declared publicly that Judah would come under the grip of famine and that foreigners would plunder it and put its people in exile in a foreign land.
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Calling & Prophetic Ministry
Verse 2 and Verse 3 of ‘Jeremiah 1,’ the first chapter of the ‘Book of Jeremiah,’ mentions that Jeremiah was called to prophetic ministry in around 626 BC by Yahweh, the national god of the Kingdom of Judah and the Kingdom of Israel (Samaria). This was during the 13th year of reign of the king of Judah, Josiah, the son of Amon, and about 5 years after Josiah started religious reformation in 632 BC and 5 years prior to the discovery of the ‘Book of Law’ in 622 BC.
Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry remained active for about 4 decades, from 626 BC to 587 BC, after Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Babylon, laid siege to Jerusalem in 589 BC, leading to the destruction of the city and the ‘Solomon's Temple’ during the summer of either 587 or 586 BC. Starting with Josiah’s reign, Jeremiah’s prophetic career witnessed the reign of five Judah kings, the others being Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. During this time, Jeremiah conveyed the Lord’s word to the people.
The initial years of Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry mainly saw him preaching across Israel. He descended from the Northern Kingdom (Samaria), and many of his oracles that were reported initially were on and directed toward the Israelites at Samaria.
He expressed his strong disapproval for fake prophets, greedy priests, and idolatry. Years later, Jeremiah was directed by God to write these early oracles and other messages given by him. Although Jeremiah foretold future destruction, many other prophets predicted peace.
Both Jeremiah and the ‘Books of Kings’ mentioned that the reform measures of Josiah were not good enough to protect Judah and Jerusalem from getting destroyed. This was because of the sins of Josiah's grandfather, Manasseh, and also the return of Judah to idolatrous practices (‘Jeremiah 11:10ff.’).
It was said that Jeremiah was appointed to disclose people’s sins and their future consequences. When Jeremiah responded to the call, saying that he was just a child and did not know how to speak, the Lord insisted that he get himself ready and speak. Jeremiah’s mouth was touched by the Lord. The Lord’s words were placed there. ‘Jeremiah 1’ elucidates the character traits and practices that he had to attain. These included not being fearful, standing up to speak, going where sent, and speaking as told.
Persecution, Conflicts, & Later Life
According to ‘Jeremiah 11:21–23,’ the ministry of Jeremiah plotted against him. The priestly kin of Jeremiah and the Anathoth men schemed to take his life, as they were not happy with his message, probably because they were worried that it would lead to the closure of the Anathoth sanctuary. The Lord, nevertheless, disclosed the plot to him and saved his life while declaring a disaster for the Anathoth men.
The deputy chief priest (“paqid nagid”) of the temple (‘Jeremiah 20:1, 2’), Pashur, who was also the son of ben Immer, "smote Jeremiah the prophet" and then put him in the stocks in the Upper Gate of Benjamin, where he remained all night. After he was released in the morning, he went to Pashur and said that God had changed Pashur’s name to "magor misabib" (“terror on every side”) and that he would be taken as a prisoner to Babylon later, where he would die (‘Jeremiah 20:6’). Jeremiah later lamented the actions he faced and regretted becoming a subject of mockery for speaking God’s word. He, however, mentioned that if he did not mention God’s name or speak God’s word, the word turned into something like fire and made it difficult for him to hold it inside.
Another priest, also named Pashur, the son of Malchiah, was sent to Jeremiah by King Zedekiah to about the Lord’s word on the forthcoming attack of King Nebuchadnezzar II (‘Jeremiah 21:1’) of Babylon. According to ‘Jeremiah 38:1-6,’ following Jeremiah’s prophecy that Jerusalem would be handed over to the Babylonian army, Pashur and three other men advised the king to kill Jeremiah for such prophecies. Jeremiah was finally thrown into a cistern, where he got submerged into the mud. Although he was rescued by a Cushite, he was kept as a prisoner till the time the kingdom was taken over by the Babylonian army in 587 BC.
According to a Babylonian edict, Jeremiah was released by the Babylonians, who were generous to him and allowed him to select the place where he wanted to stay. Jeremiah then relocated to Mizpah in Benjamin with Gedaliah, who was inducted as the governor of the Yehud province by Nebuchadnezzar II, following Judah’s defeat and the destruction of Jerusalem.
According to sources, Jeremiah possibly spent the last phase of his life in Egypt, after Johanan (who succeeded Gedaliah, following his murder) feared the vengeance of Nebuchadnezzar and escaped to Egypt. Jonathan took along with him the king’s daughters, Jeremiah, and the latter’s scribe and servant Baruch. Although the death of Jeremiah has not been validated by any authentic record, sources mention that he passed away in the 6th century BC in Egypt.
Rabbinic literature mentions Ezekiel as the son of Jeremiah. Ezekiel is acknowledged in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as a Hebrew prophet, and finds a place as the central protagonist in the ‘Book of Ezekiel’ in the ‘Hebrew Bible.’