Like the very last announcement to board a departing plane, Jeremiah’s 40-year ministry (627-586 BC) is God’s final call to the kingdom of Judah. If her inhabitants fail to heed God’s words through Jeremiah, the kingdom, her king, and her Temple will all come tumbling down.
Jeremiah is notoriously difficult to outline, but here is the flow of thought in these chapters:
Jeremiah’s call to ministry in Jeremiah 1. God promises that the majority of his ministry will be a preaching of coming judgment (v. 10). God also prepares Jeremiah for the fight that God knows lies ahead—Jeremiah will face stiff opposition but God will be with him (vv. 17-19).
Jeremiah 2 reports on (1) what Judah should have said and did not (vv. 6, 8) and (2) what they did say and should not have (vv. 20, 23, 27, 31, 35). Their speech betrays a heart far from God and full of idols. Jeremiah 2 also contains the fountain-of-fresh-water versus broken-cistern metaphor—Judah’s exchange of her Glory for idols who cannot profit is mindboggling (2:9-13).
Jeremiah 3-6 (specifically 3:6-6:30) condemns Judah for not profiting from the negative example of her “sister” Israel, the Northern Kingdom. By the time of Jeremiah, Israel had been carried away captive by the Assyrians because of her transgressions. Yet—and this is God’s point in these chapters—Judah has not learned from Israel’s mistake. Her inhabitants’ decision to knowingly persist in idolatry has “forced” God to punish her. God would be unjust not to (5:9, 29; also 9:9).
In Jeremiah 7-10, God addresses Judah’s misplaced confidences and attempts to refocus her on the duty of obedience to Him. Judah boasts in the Temple as if the building itself is a talisman protecting against divine punishment (7:1-11). What happened at Shiloh is proof positive that God does not hesitate to topple religious buildings if God’s people refuse to obey. Jeremiah 9 makes clear that boasting in wisdom, might, and riches is a misplaced trust. In chapter 10, idols are misplaced confidence—they are manmade and mean nothing to the God who made the heavens and the earth. If you want to boast, boast that you know the Lord (9:23-24). In some ways, what God desires most is a heart to know Him (24:7). Where that exists, all other relational wrinkles will iron out.
As you read Jeremiah 11-20, you will feel the increasing “back and forth” in terms of who is speaking. (You may have already noticed this in 8:13-9:3.) Sometimes God is speaking to Jeremiah. Other times, Jeremiah is speaking to God. Now and again, God delivers a message to Jeremiah for His people. And on occasion, Jeremiah is speaking to God on behalf of the people—either quoting their words (as in 11:19) or grieving over them. Jeremiah’s preaching of Judah and Jerusalem’s imminent destruction is decidedly unnationalistic, and it leads to his being beaten and humiliated by Pashhur the priest (20:1-6). When the heat gets too intense for Jeremiah, his emotions melt and he complains to the Lord about his circumstances (11:18-12:13; 15:10-21; 17:14-18; 18:19-23; 20:7-18).
Jeremiah 21-25 confirms to Judah’s kings and prophets that God will not deliver Judah and Jerusalem from Babylon (see 21:1-7). In Jeremiah 22, God assesses three of Judah’s final kings and disapproves of them all. God’s curse against Coniah, also known as Jeconiah, is especially severe (22:24-30).
But meet the Sprig of David (“Branch,” 23:5), God’s counter-answer. (The term Branch refers to a small sprig, the kind that sprouts from a seemingly dead stump.) Although unworthy shepherds (i.e., kings) and false prophets had led God’s people astray and sealed the nation’s doom (see chapter 23), God would in the future (“Behold, the days are coming”) raise up a “sprig” to sit on David’s throne and usher in a reign of justice and righteousness (23:5-6). Jeremiah 24 with its analogy of good figs and bad figs paves the way for Jeremiah 25, arguably the clearest declaration of the 70 years of captivity to Babylon in all of the Old Testament (25:8-14).
Jeremiah 26-29 brings the prophecies of judgment against Judah to a close. These chapters depict (1) the hostile reactions to Jeremiah’s preaching of Jerusalem’s demise and of a lengthy captivity in Babylon, and (2) the way in which God defends or confirms Jeremiah’s unpopular message. Adverse reactions are humanly understandable: agree with a preacher who tells you to surrender to the enemy battering down your gates? But Jeremiah is right. He speaks for God. Those in Judah and Jerusalem who will survive are those who settle down in Babylon and wait until God’s appointed time of captivity is over (29:1-14). But those who resist Jeremiah and his words preach rebellion against the Lord, and each in turn will face the consequences for what they have done (29:24-32).
The divine punishment warned of in Jeremiah 1-29 is severe but almost every such warning is conditional, depending on the response of the person to whom the warning is issued. God does not change and His will does not change but when you or I change, we fall under a different set of decreed consequences (18:7-10). Unfortunately, Judah refused to change and the last half of Jeremiah records the tragic outcome.
- Explain some ways in which Jeremiah’s ministry was a tough one. What ultimately does God promise Jeremiah in order to help him (1:17-19)? (Does Jesus say anything similar to us in Matthew 28:20?)
- In Jeremiah 2, what do the broken cisterns image? Who does the fountain of fresh water picture?
- How does the refrain in 5:9, 29; 9:9 suggest that God would be unjust if He does not punish Judah?
- In what way had Judah made the Temple a den of robbers (7:11)? How was their trust in the Temple misplaced?
- What is the one thing worth boasting of (according to Jeremiah 9:23-24)?
- Read through Jeremiah’s five complaints. What emotions does Jeremiah express? (Do God’s servants ever struggle with their “assignment”?)
- What does the word “Branch” literally mean and in what way is it used as a messianic term (Jer. 23:5-6)?
- How many years would Judah and the nations serve the king of Babylon?
- In what sense are God’s warnings of judgment (or promises of blessing) conditional (see 18:-10)?
- Did Judah listen to Jeremiah’s calls for repentance? (So was Jeremiah a failure in his ministry? What makes a person a success or failure in their work for God?)