Jeremiah: Prophet of Judgment and of Hope

Jeremiah's tragic message is conveyed by both his prophecies and account of Jerusalem's destruction, but he also gives his people hope.

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Excerpted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion (Oxford University Press).

Jeremiah was the prophet born in Anathoth, about three miles north of Jerusalem, whose minis­try began in the 13th year of Josiah king of Judah (i.e. 627 B.C.E.), and extended for a period of over 40 years. The book of Jeremiah contains much biographical and autobio­graphical material, so that more is known about Jeremiah's life than about any other of the great literary prophets.

Little is told of Jeremiah's activity during the reign of Josiah, whose grand­father Manasseh, during a reign of 40 years, had led the people astray from monotheism to idolatrous worship on the "high places." Josiah's reformation consisted of the restoration of mono­theism and the centralization of worship in the Temple. Many of the people, however, con­tinued to follow the ways to which they had been accustomed during the reign of Manasseh, and against them were directed Jeremiah's castigations.

jeremiah

Michaelangelo's depiction of Jeremiah

From the beginning Jeremiah wit­nessed the downfall of the Assyrian Empire in 606 B.C.E.; the death of Josiah in 605 B.C.E.; the destruction of the Jewish State by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.; and the carrying-away of most of the people in captivity to Babylon. Jeremiah himself was taken to Egypt by fugitive Judaeans [those from the territory of Judah, later called the Jews after their return from exile] where he died, according to the leg­end, a martyr's death.

Biblical scholars have seen the book of Jer­emiah as comprising four major collections: 1. chapters 1-25, consisting of smaller units cen­tered on the judgment announced against the nation; 2. chapters 26-36, comprising oracles and sayings within a narrative framework; 3. chapters 37-45, dealing with Jeremiah's life from the siege of Jerusalem to his final ministry in Egypt; 4. chapters 46-51, a separate section containing oracles against the nations. The book ends with a chapter (52) consisting of a historical appendix. This last section has a close parallel in the historical account in the second book of Kings (24: 18-25: 30). Jeremiah is held by tradition to be the author of the book of Lamentations [another biblical book, included in the Writings, or Ketuvim section].

Jeremiah is fearless in denouncing the faith­lessness of both the people and the noblemen. It is righteousness and knowledge of Him that God wants, and it is in these alone that man can take pride: "Thus saith the Lord: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; But let him that glorieth glory in this, That he understandeth, and knoweth Me, that I am the Lord who exercises mercy, justice and righteousness in the earth; For in these things I delight, saith the Lord" (Jeremiah 9: 22-3).

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.