Who Was Jeremiah the Prophet?

God called Jeremiah a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall (Jer 1:18); a tester and refiner of metals, a tower and fortress (Jer 6:27); a man through whom He would speak against false prophets and shepherds who mislead their sheep. Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? (Jer 23:29) Jeremiah would be the voice of that word. Hated and feared by many, yet secretly sought by the king, He belonged to no one but God, was indebted to no one but God. He was totaliter aliter (totally other).

Indeed, Jeremiah was the best kind of prophet, a reluctant one (Jer 1:6). Beware the eager prophets, the self-appointed ones who seize the mantle as a pretext for their anger and opinions. They claim to speak for God, but He says of them, I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied (Jer 23:21).

God had always known Jeremiah and had laid the foundation for his ministry: 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 (Jer 1:5).

Jeremiah ben Hilkiah was born in 640 B.C. in Anathoth, a small town just three miles north of Jerusalem. At age twelve or thirteen he had a mystical experience in which God spoke to him:

“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.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the Lord.” Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord 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” (Jer 1:5-10).

Jeremiah’s early years were his happiest and it was of these that he likely wrote, When I found your words, I devoured them; your words were my joy, the happiness of my heart, Because I bear your name, LORD, God of hosts (Jer 15:16). The rediscovery of the Book of Deuteronomy and the sober example of the destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel (721 B.C.) had spurred a religious revival led by King Josiah, beginning in 622 B.C. Foreign entanglements and the religious errors that accompanied them were eliminated. These days of reform would be brief, but for this short time there would be one Lord, one temple, one worship. It was a kind of Jewish renaissance, the best since the days of King David.

But then came disaster. Instead of trusting God, Josiah engaged in a foolish war against King Neco of Egypt, who was marching to assist Assyria against Babylon. Josiah was killed at Megiddo in 609 BC. The kings that followed were puppets of Neco, and foreign entanglement and religious syncretism resumed.

Jeremiah wrote of Israel’s infidelity and Judah’s failure to learn from Israel’s poor example:

The Lord said to me in the days of King Josiah: “Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce.

Yet her treacherous sister Judah does not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Israel took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the Lord (Jer 3:6-10).

Jeremiah’s next forty years would be spent laboring under four different Kings (Jehoiakim, Johoiachin, Zedekiah, and Gedaliah). None of them would trust God, instead compromising with the world for a false peace. For them, Jeremiah had only scorching denunciations about a coming catastrophe for their religious laxity and political cowardice.

Even as a boy he had seen disaster coming from the north:

I see a boiling pot, facing away from the north. Then the Lord said to me, “Out of the north disaster shall be let loose upon all the inhabitants of the land. … each king shall come, and every one shall set his throne at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem, against all its walls all around and against all the cities of Judah. And I will declare my judgments against them, for all their evil in forsaking me (Jer 1:13-16).

Against the priestly class who trusted merely in the location of the Temple and in sacrifices offered without obedience of the heart, Jeremiah railed:

Do not trust in your deceptive words, chanting, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.” For only if you really change your ways and deeds, if you act justly toward one another and no longer oppress the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow, and no longer shed innocent blood in this place or follow other gods to your own harm, only then I will allow you to live in this place, in the land I gave to your fathers forever and ever. But look, at you, you keep trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal, and follow other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before Me in this house, which bears My name, and say, “We are delivered, so we can continue with all these abominations”? Has this house, which bears My name, become a den of robbers in your sight? Yes, I too have seen it, declares the LORD. But go now to the place in Shiloh where I first made a dwelling for My name and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel (Jer 7:4-12).

An even greater source of distress to Jeremiah were the court prophets and priests who lost their way in the halls of power and told the king what he wanted to hear and what was expedient rather than what God had to say. To them he said,

All are greedy for gain; from the prophet to the priest, all practice deceit. They dress the wounds of the daughter of My people with very little care, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all, not even enough to blush. … But the snorting of enemy horses is heard from Dan. At the sound of the neighing of mighty steeds, the whole land quakes. They come to devour the land and everything in it, the city and all who dwell in it (Jer 8:10-12, 16).

Such talk, such an action, is sure to generate a reaction. Jeremiah was soon assailed by foes, family, and friends alike as an enemy of the state and of the Temple. He was labeled a doomsayer and “no friend of Judah.” A prophet’s lot is not a happy one.

Was Jeremiah simply an angry man, unpatriotic and hypercritical of his people and the leaders of the day? Time would tell. Too often people and cultures that are heading toward ruin become locked in avoidance, lies, denial, self-deception, and half-truths; they cannot envision a love that is anything other than approval. Dysfunction and disordered drives become the norm.

Jeremiah loved his people and sought their repentance. The medicine they needed was reality, not the smoke and mirrors of lies and half-truths. Jeremiah would pay dearly for his disclosure of the truth. To a people used to darkness, the light is obnoxious.

The king’s officials, including Pashur the priest, convinced King Zedekiah that Jeremiah should be put to death because his prophecies were discouraging the soldiers as well as the people. Zedekiah did not oppose them, and so Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern, where he sank down into the mud. They intended to starve him to death, but Ebed-melech the Cushite rescued Jeremiah by pulling him out of the cistern. However, Jeremiah remained imprisoned until Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian army in 587 B.C.

The tide had turned against Jeremiah:

And the LORD informed me, so I knew. Then You showed me their deeds. For I was like a gentle lamb led to slaughter; I did not know that they had plotted against me: “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit; let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name will be remembered no more” (Jer 11:18-19).

Pursued and opposed, Jeremiah went into a dark place and lamented his role and the constant pain of hatred directed against him. He was isolated and sensed no consolation from God:

Woe to me, my mother, that you have borne me, a man of strife and conflict in all the land. I have neither lent nor borrowed, yet everyone curses me (Jer 15:10).

You have deceived me, O LORD, and I was deceived. You have overcome me and prevailed. I am a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I cry out, I proclaim violence and destruction. For the word of the LORD has become to me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, “I will not mention Him or speak any more in His name,” His message becomes a fire burning in my heart, shut up in my bones, and I become weary of holding it in, and I cannot prevail. For I have heard the whispering of many, “Terror is on every side! Report him; let us report him!” All my trusted friends watch for my fall: “Perhaps he will be deceived so that we may prevail against him and take our vengeance upon him.” But the LORD is with me like a fearsome warrior (Jer 20:7-11).

Prophets suffer because they love and care for the ultimate well-being of God’s people, not merely their present comfort. They suffer because they do not fit into tidy political or tribal categories. They speak for God, who transcends such groups. Yes, although the prophet is totaliter aliter (totally other), the human cost is high, and he comes to resemble Christ on the cross. The prophet’s own notions of grandeur must be crucified. The idea that most people will ultimately accept the truth must be crucified. (I have written more about Jeremiah’s struggle here.)

Just before the end of Judah, King Zedekiah summoned Jeremiah from prison and asked for a prophecy regarding the war he proposed against the Babylonians. Jeremiah prophesied against it, implying that the present Babylonian oppression was punishment for Judah’s sin. He told the king that God would spare Judah the worst if they accepted this and did not take matters into their own hands.

This is what the LORD, the God of Hosts, the God of Israel, says: If you indeed surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, then you will live, this city will not be burned down, and you and your household will survive. But if you do not surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, then this city will be handed over to them. They will burn it down, and you yourself will not escape their grasp (Jer 38:17-18).

Zedekiah did not listen, and the end came swiftly:

In the ninth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the tenth month, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon advanced against Jerusalem with his entire army and laid siege to the city. And on the ninth day of the fourth month of Zedekiah’s eleventh year, the city was broken through. … [The] king of Babylon slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and he also killed all the nobles of Judah. Then he put out Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him with bronze chains to take him to Babylon. The Chaldeans set fire to the palace of the king and to the houses of the people, and they tore down the walls of Jerusalem (Jer 39:1-8).

Jeremiah was freed from prison and likely spent the remainder of his days in Egypt (against his will). The remnant of Judah refused his prophecy and made alliances with Egypt. Jeremiah spent the rest of his life there trying to dissuade the Jewish people in Egypt from foreign alliances and from being enamored of the Egyptian gods. His warnings went unheeded and the remnant in Egypt received the following condemnation from God through him:

The Lord says, “Those who escape the sword to return from Egypt to Judah, will be few in number, and the whole remnant of Judah who went to dwell in the land of Egypt will know whose word will stand, Mine or theirs (Jer 44:28).

It was likely in Egyptian exile that Jeremiah died, although there is no certain account of his death. He died preaching and warning.

Yes, he was a pillar of brass against a stubborn people. He suffered greatly for his work; he had the often-thankless task of summoning people away from worldly thinking and political alliances that compromised their devotion to God.

This work must continue both in and out of the Church. In our world there is a great darkness, but Jeremiah would warn us that the problem should be seen within before we look outside. We can surely hear the echoes of warning to shepherds who mislead their flock. Collectively, we are compromised; we are too politically aligned with secular agendas and prone to giving God lip service rather than wholehearted obedience.

From the depths of Jeremiah’s dark period come some of the most beautiful promises of all from God:

I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have drawn you with loving devotion. Again I will build you, and you will be rebuilt, O Virgin Israel. Again you will take up your tambourines and go out in joyful dancing. Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant and enjoy the fruit. For there will be a day when watchmen will call out on the hills of Ephraim, “Arise, let us go up to Zion, to the LORD our God” (Jer 31:3-6).

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. … “But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD. I will put My law in their minds and inscribe it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they will be My people. … For I will forgive their iniquity and will remember their sins no more (Jer 31:31-34).

Yes, Jeremiah, you were like a brass wall and a pillar of iron among a shaky people. Your name means “The Lord founds.” May the Lord who has founded us find us again in His word through you.


Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Who Was Jeremiah the Prophet?

One Reply to “Who Was Jeremiah the Prophet?”

  1. As an aside, Msgr Pope, I was curious about the words in Jeremiah’s banner, since my Latin is not sophisticated enough for abbreviations. I landed in Google Books… translation below from French and Latin is mine, I apologize preemptively for any mistakes.

    From “Annales archéologiques, volume 15”, by Adolphe Napoléon Didron et al., page 376, (Google Books)

    It is completely remarkable that piety readily employed the symbolism of animals to express the goodness of the Redeemer of the world. One can see in Rome, in the church of St. Marie-in-Trastevere, an apsidal mosaic representing a cross, accompanied by seven chandeliers and four animals. On its sides are the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. Isaiah has a banner on which one reads the inscription: “Ecce Virgo concipiet et pariet Filium” (Behold, the Virgin conceived and gave birth to the Son). Jeremiah has before him a white bird. Is is a dove or a pigeon, prisoner in a cage; on the prophet’s banner one can read: “Christus Dominus captus est in peccatis nostris” (Christ the Lord is captive in our sins). This mosaic dates from Innocent II, that is, from the second half of the 12th century. Pious and touching figure of the cruelty of the bird catcher and of the gentleness of the willing prisoner!

    Even more remarkable, the quotation is from the Book of Lamentations, chapter 4, verse 20, according to text I’ve read from the Clementine Vulgate. “Christus Dominus” explicitly in an Old Testament book!? My soul leaps for joy at this finding!

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