The book of Jeremiah is noted for its language about a new covenant and remembered also for the call of Jeremiah. It is a difficult book to follow because it is not in chronological order, which we tend to prefer, and it can be very poetic. What follows is an introduction to the book and some of the major issues, an exploration of the first chapter in particular, and all this building up to a proposal for understanding the structure of the Hebrew version of Jeremiah that we use today. Getting a good grasp on the issues discussed below will greatly help you to better understand and appreciate the grand prophecy of Jeremiah.
Two Versions of Jeremiah?
The first issue of importance to note is that there were two different ancient editions of the book of Jeremiah. One is reflected in the main Hebrew text that we follow today and the other is reflected in the Septuagint (Greek translation). In cave 4 at Qumran there were fragments of three partial Hebrew manuscripts of Jeremiah – two of which are the same as the Hebrew we use today and one reflects the text the Greek translators used.
What makes studying Jeremiah difficult is the disorganization of the text. This is part of the reason that two editions developed. The text does not follow chronological order nor do the materials seem to fit any kind of obvious outline (but see the end of the post). Although the Septuagint of Jeremiah follows the same general order as Isaiah.
There are at least two different early editions of these prophecies mentioned in the book itself. Jeremiah 36 reveals this: Jeremiah had his scribe Baruch write down the words of YHWH. Baruch was to go read the words on the scroll in the Temple. King Jehoiakim got the scroll and burned it piece by piece. Then YHWH told Jeremiah to write it down again. And the text tells us: “Then Jeremiah took another scroll and gave it to Baruch the scribe, the son of Neriah, who wrote on it at the dictation of Jeremiah all the words of the scroll that Jehoiakim king of Judah had burned in the fire. And many similar words were added to them” (Jeremiah 36:32). It has been suggested that the reason for the disorganization of the book is that this is in part because it was written down again with more words added.
The book would not be complete until after Jeremiah prophesied to King Zedekiah.
Presumably Jeremiah and Baruch are the authors of the book, Baruch is likely responsible for the historical information included in the book of prophecies that he took down from Jeremiah.
Structure in Jeremiah
That the book appears disorganized at the macro level does not mean that it is always disorganized on a micro level. There are a number of topical collections within the book (often introduced with subtitles). There is a series of oracles against foreign nations.
The book does not follow a chronological order, so we will look first at what that order is from the opening verse of the book.
Isaiah prophesied during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah from about 740 to 700 B.C.
Jeremiah prophesied during the reigns of Josiah, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah from about 627 to 586 (the destruction of Jerusalem). (The opening lines do not mention Jehoahaz and Jehoiachin, the two kings who reigned for 3 months each.)
Interesting that Isaiah ended with a good king (Hezekiah) and Jeremiah began with a good king (Josiah). The kings bef & aft were wicked.
Jeremiah 1:1-3 says, “The words of Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, one of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of YHWH came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the 13th year of his reign. It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, and until the end of the 11th year of Zedekiah, the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the 5th month.”
Subtitles: Jeremiah in 3rd Person
“The word that came to Jeremiah from YHWH” (Jeremiah 7:1, 11:1, 18:1, 30:1).
“The word of YHWH that came to Jeremiah concerning the drought” (Jeremiah 14:1).
“This is the word that came to Jeremiah from YHWH, when King Zedekiah sent to him Pashhur the son of Malchiah and Zephaniah the priest, the son of Maaseiah, saying,” (Jeremiah 21:1).
“The word that came to Jeremiah concerning all the people of Judah, in the 4th year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah (that was the 1st year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon), which Jeremiah the prophet spoke to all the people of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem:” (Jeremiah 25:1).
“In the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah the son of Josiah, king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from YHWH” (Jeremiah 27:1).Subtitles: Jeremiah in 3rd Person“These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. … (Jeremiah 29:1-3).
“The word that came to Jeremiah from YHWH in the 10th year of Zedekiah king of Judah, which was the 18th year of Nebuchadnezzar” (Jeremiah 32:1).
“The word of YHWH came to Jeremiah a second time, while he was still shut up in the court of the guard” (Jeremiah 33:1).
“The word that came to Jeremiah from YHWH, when Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and all his army and all the kingdoms of the earth under his dominion and all the peoples were fighting against Jerusalem and all of its cities:” (Jeremiah 34:1).
“The word that came to Jeremiah from YHWH in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah” (Jeremiah 35:1).Subtitles: Jeremiah in 3rd Person“In the 4th year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from YHWH” (Jeremiah 36:1).
“The word that came to Jeremiah from YHWH after Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard had let him go from Ramah, when he took him bound in chains along with all the captives of Jerusalem and Judah who were being exiled to Babylon” (Jeremiah 40:1).Subtitles: Jeremiah in 3rd Person“The word that came to Jeremiah concerning all the Judeans who lived in the land of Egypt, at Migdol, at Tahpanhes, at Memphis, and in the land of Pathros” (Jeremiah 44:1).
“The word that Jeremiah the prophet spoke to Baruch the son of Neriah, when he wrote these words in a book at the dictation of Jeremiah, in the 4th year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah:” (Jeremiah 45:1).
“The word of YHWH that came to Jeremiah the prophet concerning the nations. About Egypt.” (Jeremiah 46:1).
“The word that YHWH spoke to Jeremiah the prophet about the coming of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon to strike the land of Egypt” (Jeremiah 46:13).
“The word of YHWH that came to Jeremiah the prophet concerning the Philistines, before Pharaoh struck down Gaza” (Jeremiah 47:1).
“Concerning Moab” (Jeremiah 48:1).
“Concerning the Ammonites” (Jeremiah 49:1).
“Concerning Edom” (Jeremiah 49:7).
“Concerning Damascus” (Jeremiah 49:23).
“Concerning Kedar and the kingdoms of Hazor that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon struck down” (Jeremiah 49:28).
“The word of YHWH that came to Jeremiah the prophet concerning Elam, in the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah” (Jeremiah 49:34).
“The word that YHWH spoke concerning Babylon, concerning the land of the Chaldeans, by Jeremiah the prophet” (Jeremiah 50:1).
And the words of Jeremiah end with the following marker: “Thus far are the words of Jeremiah” (Jeremiah 51:64).
After this is attached some historical narrative.
Jeremiah and Kings
Just as Isaiah borrows some sections of Kings, so does the ending of the book of Jeremiah:
Jeremiah 52:1-27 is from 2 Kings 24:18-25:21, Jeremiah 52:31-34 is from 2 Kings 25:27-30.
It has been argued that Jeremiah 1:2-25:13 is meant to be understood as one collection, perhaps even the prophecies Jehoiakim burned.
Chapter 25 begins by reflecting back to the beginning of Jeremiah’s ministry and there are a number of similarities between the opening verses of Jeremiah and these thirteen verses. Verse 13 would then end the section, “I will bring upon that land all the words that I have uttered against it, everything written in this book, which Jeremiah prophesied against all the nations.”
Jeremiah 25:14 is not found in the LXX (Septuagint) but the very next section in the LXX is the oracles against foreign nations, which are not found in our text until chapters 46-51. The order of these oracles is different too. The foreign nations were in order of importance in the LXX whereas they are basically in geographical order from south to north and west to east in our text.
Jeremiah is directly quoted in the NT about 40 times (most of them in Revelation concerning the destruction of Babylon).
There are other allusions to the prophet and his book. For example, it has been suggested that Jesus weeping over the city of Jerusalem is meant to bring to mind Jeremiah, often called the weeping prophet.
The book is only second to Isaiah among the prophets in the influence it has on the NT.
Now to get started in the book. The opening chapters use the phrase: “Now/and the word of YHWH came to me, saying” to mark paragraphs (Jeremiah 1:4, 11, 13 (“a second time”), Jeremiah 2:1). Other times a section might begin like this: “Hear the word of YHWH, O house of Jacob, and all the clans of the house of Israel. Thus says YHWH” (Jeremiah 2:4-5a).
These together with the title and subtitles of the book reveals the overarching theme of the book is that Jeremiah receives the word of YHWH.
As with other prophets, the first word that Jeremiah received was his call:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).
So Jeremiah’s call as a prophet came before he was formed in the womb of his mother and he was set apart (consecrated) as a prophet before birth (presumably set apart in the womb).
Jeremiah is a prophet like Moses and John the Baptist. This call is similar to John the Baptist. But the book also makes many comparisons of Jeremiah and Moses. Jeremiah is almost a new Moses.
Thus his response is like Moses, “Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord YHWH! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth” (Jeremiah 1:6). And like Joshua, Jeremiah is told, “do not be afraid” (Jeremiah 1:8).
Like Isaiah 6:6 where a seraphim flew to Isaiah and touched his lips with a burning coal, Jeremiah tells us, “Then YHWH put out his hand and touched my mouth. And YHWH said to me, ‘Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant’” (Jeremiah 1:9-10). This mirrors the last chapter before the oracles against foreign nations where it says, “Behold, what I have built I am breaking down, and what I have planted I am plucking up” (Jeremiah 45:4).
Two verses later begin the oracles against foreign nations where Jeremiah the prophet speaks “concerning the nations” (Jeremiah 46:1). Remember that this was part of his original calling: “I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).
This suggests a chiasmic inclusio to the book – A. a prophet to the nations (1:4-8), B. pluck up language (1:9-10), B’ pluck up language (45), A’ (46-51) a prophet to the nations. Or better yet,
A. historical overview (1:1-3), B. a prophet to the nations (1:4-8), C. pluck up language (1:9-10), C’ pluck up language (45), B’ (46-51) a prophet to the nations, A’ historical conclusion (52).
Perhaps the book is arranged as a chiasm, that would explain why it does not follow chronological order. In any case, what this observation shows you is that the whole as we have it is a complete and unified book.
The next thing in chapter one is two visions.
The first is of an almond branch. It is explained as, “for I am watching over my word to perform it.” The word for almond sounds like the word for watching.
The second is of a boiling pot, facing away from the north. This one is explained as there will be disaster for the land’s inhabitants out of the north “for all their evil in forsaking” YHWH.
Here we discover that the people that Jeremiah is not to be afraid of is his own people and their leaders (kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land). “They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares YHWH, to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:19). This again echoes Joshua 1. Jeremiah is to be understood as the new successor to Moses.
The Chiasm of Jeremiah
I mentioned before that the opening and conclusion to Jeremiah suggests a chiasm is the way to understand the structure of the book. A. historical overview (1:1-3), B. a prophet to the nations (1:4-8), C. pluck up language (1:9-10), C’ pluck up language (45), B’ (46-51) a prophet to the nations, A’ historical conclusion (52). I also mentioned that the dischronologization suggests that perhaps a chiasm is the way to understand the structure of the book.
And when we look at the content there is a chiasm that explains the whole book:
(The chiasm proposed above is based on class notes from Mike Kelly, WTS)
Thus the climax of the book is the book of consolation with its famous new covenant themes.