Jeremiah, called as a prophet by Israel’s god Yahweh, was something of a visionary in Judah. In the ancient Near East, an important prophetic function was assisting kings with divine guidance for military conquest. Some previous Israelite prophets had fulfilled such a role. Yet, in the face of impending exile and following Yahweh’s command, Jeremiah refused that role. Instead, he charted a new course for the people of Judah that persisted through exile, something no other ancient Near Eastern religion accomplished. Jeremiah foretold military defeat resulting in the destruction of the temple (Jer 7, Jer 26) and exile. Following this would come a new reality, a new covenant (Jer 31:31-40)—one without the ark of the covenant (Jer 3:16)—and uncertainty regarding the throne of David (Jer 36:30). These prophecies angered some other prophets and priests and led to conflict (Jer 26-28).
What was the turning point in Jeremiah’s struggle with other prophets in Israel?
Jeremiah’s opponents finally hauled him before the assembly in the temple (Jer 28). Though the priests and prophets demanded his death, the officials and lay people decided in favor of Jeremiah. However, this did not vindicate Jeremiah’s message, for another prophet, Uriah, with a similar message, suffered death by the same assembly (Jer 26:20-24). Jer 27-28 describes a significant conflict between Jeremiah and the prophet Hananiah, both disagreeing over the fate of King Jehoiachin, whom the Babylonians had taken into exile. Jehoiachin had become a focal point for widely divergent hopes among various groups of Judean exiles. Many still cherished some hope that Jehoiachin would return and lead a renewed Judah after Yahweh had ended the punishment of exile. They clung to the hope of Yahweh’s promise that there would always be a descendant of David to sit on the throne of Israel (2Sam 23:5, 2Kgs 8:19, Jer 17:25).
Yet, Jeremiah had already prophesied otherwise in Jer 22:24-30 Jehoiachin would never return. He would never have a son sitting on the throne of Israel, and the queen mother would suffer exile (sons were necessary to provide a legitimate heir to the throne, and identifying the queen mother was often a way to legitimate royal succession).
Not surprisingly, when Jeremiah and Hananiah face off (Jer 28), the fate of Jehoiachin is at stake. Jeremiah holds to his former prophecy and reiterates that Jehoiachin will never return. Yet Jeremiah seems unexpectedly uncertain after the confrontation, allowing Hananiah to have the last word (Jer 28:11). Only later, after receiving a new divine oracle, does Jeremiah come back to reaffirm his prophecy.
Eventually, Jeremiah also went into exile, but in Egypt not Babylon. Some of the Judahites took him prisoner when they were attempting to avoid going to Babylon as Jeremiah had directed. Yet in the end, Jeremiah was correct, passing the test of a true prophet given in Deut 13:1-5 and vindicating the judgment of the people and officials in Jer 26:11. Jehoiachin never returned from Babylon, nor did his mother. One of his offspring, Zerubbabel, became a Judean governor when the exiles returned (Hag 1:14), but there was no king from his line. Jeremiah points forward to an unknown righteous “Branch” who would resume the Davidic kingly line (Jer 23:1-6, Jer 33:14-26), although he gives few clues about the identity of this person. Some readers later connected Zerubbabel, whose name means “seed of Babylon,” to the resumption of the kingly line based on Hag 2:23, although nothing further appears in the canonical record on this possibility.
Was Jeremiah ever aware of his vindication?
After the Judeans take Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch to Egypt, there is no biblical account of his death. Some later Christian interpreters, possibly following Jewish sources, claimed he received martyrdom in Egypt. We do not know how much communication passed between Jews in Egypt and Babylon, although certainly there was some, as Alexandria and Babylon became the centers of Jewish scribal activity after the fall of Jerusalem.
Alexandria eventually produced the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. In contrast to the Greek, the Hebrew version, likely produced in either Judah or Babylon, contains a longer version of the book of Jeremiah that follows a different order. This Hebrew version (the Masoretic Text) became the basis for the book that eventually attained canonical status. All this likely happened, however, after Jeremiah’s death. The task of collecting, editing, and summarizing his works went to scribes. The family of Shaphan had been Jeremiah’s main protectors while he was in Judah, and they appear to have become caretakers of his works after his departure. Baruch was a son of Shaphan, as was Seraiah, Baruch’s brother, who appears in Babylon in Jer 52.
These scribes, or scribes from their circles, likely added a conclusion to the book of Jeremiah (Jer 52). It closely resembles the end of 2 Kings, much as Isa 36-39 draws on 2Kgs 18-20. From what scholars know from Babylonian history, not every detail of Jeremiah’s prophecies against Babylon and Jehoiachin came true exactly as he had said. Nevertheless, the scribal editors observed that Jeremiah was right about Jehoiachin’s end and Babylon’s triumph. They probably believed this vindicated Jeremiah and appended Jer 52 in testimony to that belief, although Jeremiah himself may well have been long gone by then.
- Job, John B. Jeremiah’s Kings: A Study of the Monarchy in Jeremiah. Society for Old Testament Study Monographs. Aldershot, Engl.: Ashgate, 2006.
- Lundbom, Jack R. Jeremiah: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible 21A. New York: Doubleday, 1999.
- Howell, J. R. “The Imperial Authority and Benefaction of Centurions and Acts 10.34-43: A Response to C. Kavin Rowe.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 31 (2008): 25–51.
- McConville, J. G. Judgment and Promise: An Interpretation of the Book of Jeremiah. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1993.
- Leuchter, Mark. The Polemics of Exile in Jeremiah 26-45. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.