We are entering a new month, a new season of the year, and a new book of the Bible. For a helpful overview of Jeremiah, we turn, once again, to Lawrence Boadt’s book, Reading the Old Testament….
Jeremiah’s book opens with his call as a prophet in the thirteenth year of King Josiah about 627 B. C. He claims to be young, too young (Jer 1:6), and some scholars believe this date actually refers to his birth (he is “called from the womb” in Jeremiah 1:5), but the majority opinion still sees 627 as the beginning of his actual ministry. Since he continues to preach down past the final exile in 586 and doesn’t disappear from sight until about 582 B. C., he holds the biblical record for prophetic activity, some forty-five years in all. His book is remarkable not only because it covers the drama of Josiah’s reform, the failures of the kings that followed him and the final collapse of the whole nation, but because it reveals a side to prophets that is rarely seen: the emotionally powerful feelings that went with their zeal for Yahweh’s word. This reveals more of the individual than any other Old Testament book. It shows Jeremiah to be “a man born out of his due time,” a person in ancient dress with whom modern readers can readily identify.
But while we gain a sympathy and understanding of the man Jeremiah, we must still wrestle with the difficult way the book is put together. Ancients did not have the same sense of order as modern people do, and they often seem to simply gather words in any old way. Indeed, the present material, like most prophetic books, really had first appeared in smaller collections taken from various sources, and the editors had to organize it as best they could without destroying the earlier parts altogether. They worked according to their ideas of how to best present the prophet’s message for their own time, and the reasoning they used is not always clear to modern readers or scholars today. Several different types of divisions can be discovered in the text.
First of all, there are three major time periods in which Jeremiah worked. The first takes place during the reign of Josiah, from the time of his call in 627 down to at least 622 and the beginning of the reform, and perhaps down even to the death of Josiah in 609. We do not know much about this period except that many of the early oracles in chapters 1-6 probably reflect Jeremiah’s demands for conversion and reform. The second period is during the reign of Josiah’s son, King Jehoiakim, from 609 down to 598. During this period, Josiah’s reform collapsed and Jehoiakim seems to have purposely moved in the opposite direction and re-established many pagan practices. The third and final period of Jeremiah’s ministry took place in the twelve years between the first destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 598 and its second and final ruin in 586, with a short period of activity in the following years of 586 to 582.
These three periods form a bare skeleton for Jeremiah’s life. The oracles and stories about the prophets, however, do not actually appear in their proper order as he delivered them. They have been collected and arranged by other principles than a time-line—although some effort was made to keep as many events in order as possible. Thus we have much from the last two periods of Jeremiah’s life but not much from the first. A brief outline of the whole book of fifty-two chapters gives five divisions, each with its own type of materials:
1. Chapters 1-25 Oracles and accounts involving the evil of Judah under three kings: Josiah (1-6), Jehoiakim (7-20), and Zedekiah (21-24).
2. Chapters 26-36 Stories about the prophet and oracles from the times of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah.
3. Chapters 37-45 The story of Jeremiah’s last days (told by Baruch?)
4. Chapters 46-51 Oracles against foreign nations.
5. Chapter 52 An appendix describing the fall of Jerusalem in 586 (taken from 2 Kings 25 to complete the story of Jeremiah’s words).