Jeremiah was called to one of the most difficult ministries of any man in Scripture. He was called to speak God’s message of judgment as the nation of Judah approached conquest and dissolution. He changed nothing, and much of his message was to warn against resistance to the foreign conqueror because he was God’s agent of wrath on apostasy.
Jeremiah was seen as a demoralizing naysayer, a doom-and-gloom prophet. He was, at times, physically accosted, slandered, imprisoned, and put on trial for his life. He was always ignored. His every prophetic utterance was contradicted by priests and a group of false prophets who promised better days would come soon. At one point the king of Judah personally destroyed his book of prophecies, requiring its complete rewriting.
Why Jeremiah Was Hated
Jeremiah preached just before the Babylonian Captivity. The nation had gone through a period of religious reforms led by King Josiah, but his death in combat revealed an ugly truth about Judah. Outwardly, Josiah had removed the altars to the baalim and forbade Baal worship (which included temple prostitution), yet after his death, the nation resumed such worship. Judah preferred their fertility cults to the worship of God.
Judah’s sin was religious apostasy. Part of their judgment was their loss of nationhood, and the means whereby God told Jeremiah this would be accomplished was by political conquest by Babylon.
Jeremiah’s time was one of political upheaval throughout the region, so his message obviously involved a political element. The king sought, as his predecessors had, to fix the political vulnerability of Judah by means of power politics. Generations earlier, Isaiah had warned Judah’s King Ahaz (Isa.10) of the terrible consequences of his decision to ask Assyria’s help against a confederacy of Syria and Israel. Judah’s history thereafter was a constant struggle to protect itself from Assyrian control.
Prophets had for generations predicted a destruction of Judah. In the past there had been some response and some periods of reform, but after Josiah, the nation was intolerant of such warnings.
Baalism was polytheistic, however, so despite their prevalent idolatry, the nation never considered themselves as having abandoned Abraham’s God. They merely recognized additional powers, lords, or “baals.” The feasts, festivals, and temple rites, revived by Josiah, went on, complete with priesthood and prophets ready to give the people an upbeat, positive message of hope and blessing. For this, these “prophets of peace” were regularly condemned by Jeremiah.
The Political Assumptions of Jeremiah’s Critics
The kings after Josiah obviously preferred the message of the prophets of peace. Considering Judah’s dire political situation, this was a far-fetched hope.
Josiah had been killed trying to stop Egypt from interfering in Assyria’s death-struggle with the Chaldeans (Babylon) led by Nebuchadnezzar. With his death, Egypt became overlord of Judah. When the people crowned one of Josiah’s sons to be the new king, the Egyptian Pharaoh flexed his authority by deposing him, exiling him to Egypt, and appointing another son in his place, Jehoiakim. During Jehoiakim’s eleven-year reign, Jerusalem capitulated to Babylonian forces under Nebuchadnezzar and Judah’s king then became a vassal to yet another empire. Jehoiakim died under mysterious circumstances after rebelling and was replaced by Jehoiachin. This time it was the Babylonian king’s turn to show his prerogative by deposing and exiling yet another short-reign king and appoint a replacement of his choosing, Zedekiah.
Politically, Judah was now a puppet of another nation, an insignificant pawn in the power politics of the day, just as Isaiah had warned. Yet the kings of Jeremiah’s day never seemed to recognize the truth of the prophet’s warnings despite their precarious existence. They were going to play the game to the very end.
The priests of Jeremiah’s day were very possessive of their prerogative and the Temple. They were offended that Jeremiah preached there. Over a century earlier, after King Hezekiah had seen an Assyrian army decimated by “the angel of the Lord” (Isa. 37:33–38) it apparently became a widely held assumption that Jerusalem and the Temple were inviolate by any outside force. The trial of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 26) was likely as a false prophet for having the audacity to challenge this belief by predicting the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple. It was only when elders of the people noted that Micah had said the same thing generations before that Jeremiah was acquitted.
The false prophets spoke with a full conviction that they, in fact, spoke the true revelation of God. Their reason for such confidence may have come from a political assessment of current events. We know that a group of diplomats from the neighboring nations of Edom, Ammon, Moab, Tyre, and Sidon were assembled in Jerusalem where Jeremiah warned them of dire consequences for rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar and commanded them to relay this warning to their kings (Jeremiah 27:3–4).
We know that Nebuchadnezzar was preoccupied with issues elsewhere. It is likely this was a diplomatic mission to Judah to discuss whether Palestine had an opportune time to throw off vassalage to Nebuchadnezzar. These prophets who opposed Jeremiah might have been engaged in a bit of “newspaper eschatology” which seemed to confirm what they already believed. This false confidence in Jerusalem’s sanctity led them to promise happier days ahead and, likely, a good outcome to the proposed rebellion.
Jeremiah’s Words to the Political Leaders
Rebellion was brewing in Zedekiah’s reign. Twice already Babylonian armies had received Jerusalem’s surrender yet spared the city from destruction. Now the king was entertaining thoughts of rebellion and diplomats from Judah’s long-term enemies, possible allies now, were present in Jerusalem.
Jeremiah appeared before these political leaders and told them in no uncertain terms they were not to rebel against Babylon or they would bring bloodshed upon themselves. The people of Judah wanted a feel good message, so the priests and the prophets were assuring them everything would be fine. Jeremiah had been preaching to them for years with no response. Finally he gave his message to the assembled ambassadors. He was very specific about the harm that would come to their nations if they resisted Babylon. He was very clear in warning them against the lies of the false prophets.
The Political Philosophy of Jeremiah
Jeremiah began with the assumption that all governments and nations were under the control of God. The basis of God’s sovereignty, he noted, was that He was the Creator of all things (Jer. 27:5). This, remember, was a message given to pagans. God was not only the God of His covenant people but of heaven and earth. Nobody was outside the realm of His authority and command.
Jeremiah’s second point was that Nebuchadnezzar was given his position by God, who raises and overthrows nations in terms of His will (vv. 6–8). By grace God was revealing His decree regarding Babylon’s ascendency so that these nations had the opportunity to avoid the fatal mistake of resisting God’s will. Jeremiah’s words to these foreign dignitaries was also a dramatic demonstration to the Jews present that, unlike the various baalim they regarded, God’s sovereign claim was universal in its applicability.
To resist God was suicidal, Jeremiah said, for both individuals and nations. God demanded compliance with the revelation His prophet was, by grace, revealing to them (vv. 12–13).
Jeremiah warned against all false prophets, both in the pagan countries represented and in Judah (vv. 9–11, 14–17). A prophet spoke words from God. Those who predicted the future by invoking God’s name were guilty of a capital offense if their prediction was wrong (Deut. 18:19–22). This is likely why Jeremiah was tried for a capital offense (Jer. 26:8ff.), though his prosecutors did not fulfill the Biblical requirement to see whether his prophesy came true. Their eschatological assumption was that Jeremiah’s prophesy could not be true.
Eschatology is not just teachings regarding the last days of creation, it is about last things, endings. There are many divine endings in Scripture. The Flood was an eschatological event for the generation that perished and their culture. The drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea was an obvious ending for the oppressors of God’s people. The fall of Samaria was an eschatological event for Israel which ought to have been taken as a warning by Judah. Likewise, the approaching fall of Jerusalem and end of the Davidic kingship was to be an ending, an eschatological event, and Jeremiah’s message was that Babylon was God’s instrument in that end. Eschatological events represent endings decreed by God so that His future might begin. Even the final judgment represents the beginning of our eternal state.
It is easy for men to see the future in terms of their own preconceived ideas about how it will play out. This is inevitable and unavoidable. Our eschatology affects our understanding about the present and the future. Jeremiah gave these diplomats a new eschatological expectation and warned them to act in terms of it.
As long as the false prophets assumed the security of Jerusalem and the Temple, Jeremiah’s prophecies regarding their downfall would have been seen as blasphemous. When they saw that Nebuchadnezzar and his armies were busy elsewhere, it would have only made sense to “act on faith” and repudiate Babylon’s overlordship.
Man’s Word vs. God’s Word
We have a postscript to Jeremiah’s words to the politicians in chapter 28. One of the prophets Jeremiah repeatedly called “false” decided it was time for pushback. He set up a very public confrontation, one he likely hoped would end in another trial of Jeremiah.
In no uncertain terms Hananiah proclaimed God had already broken Judah’s dependence on Babylon and that the Temple vessels and exiled king Jehoiachin would return within two years. Such time-frames by prophets are not typical in Scripture. Hananiah was prophesying on the basis of the political rumors coming from the exiles in Babylon and calling it a word from God. Jeremiah 29 indicates such rumors were being fed to Judah by reports from Hebrew false prophets in Babylon. Much modern eschatology is based on current accounts rather than Scripture.
There is an interesting contrast in the account of the false prophet Hananiah. Jeremiah sarcastically said “Amen” to his words, and added “The Lord perform thy words” (Jer. 28:6) but when God told Jeremiah what to say in response to Hananiah, however, we are told it was, “The word of the Lord” (v.12). This was the issue. Hananiah, the false prophet, spoke man’s word; Jeremiah was, by grace, given God’s word.
Man is seldom given a specific political analysis such as Jeremiah gave regarding God’s judgment coming through the agency of Babylon. Jeremiah’s words were a gracious warning—don’t stand opposed to God’s work in history. Most often, such opposition is in the form of immorality or injustice by those who defy God’s Kingdom.
The false prophets had decided what God should do and constructed their message around that vision. They controlled Judah’s monarchy, priesthood, and people. But this unity, like that of Masada, was a suicidal stand against God’s providence. God cast them aside and depopulated the land until He raised up a remnant through which He would work His salvation.
Babylon caused an unprecedented political upheaval in the region. Nations disappeared entirely, including Judah for many years, but Babylon’s glory days only lasted about seventy years and it, in turn fell to Persia, through which God allowed Judah’s restoration.
Jeremiah’s message is very clear. Do not resist God’s work in history. If we align ourselves with the Kingdom of God, our political perspective will fall into place.” Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33).