Study Guide

Book of Jeremiah

Book of Jeremiah Introduction

Jeremiah was a bullfrog… or, uh, we mean a prophet.

Along with Isaiah and Ezekiel, Jeremiah's one of the "Major Prophets" of the Hebrew Bible: they're like the Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael of Biblical prophets—and we're talking Ninja Turtles here, not painters. And of the three, Jeremiah's the only one with a word named after him: jeremiad, meaning a long, mournful lament or angry harangue. (He does both. A lot.)

God called Jeremiah (Jerry to his close pals) to the prophecy biz when he was just a kid. Early on in his career, Jeremiah saw King Josiah try to get the Judeans back to observing the laws that God set down for them in Deuteronomy. That worked for a while, but pretty soon they went back to their sinful ways—idol worship, child sacrifice, eating bacon cheeseburgers, etc.

God told Jeremiah what would happen (total destruction of Judea courtesy of the Babylonian army) and told him he had to warn the people to shape up or else. Jeremiah spent years prophesying the bad news to no avail. All he got for his trouble was rejection, imprisonment, and no dinner invitations. For some reason, no one wanted to hear about invasion, slaughter, divine wrath, starvation, rape, and enslavement. The king wouldn't listen to his advice about surrendering to the Babylonians to save the nation. Jeremiah spent a lot of time weeping about this.

So just as he prophesied, the city of Jerusalem was invaded and burned to the ground by the Babylonian army as punishment for their disobedience to God. The Temple was reduced to rubble and the king hauled off into captivity. Most of the people who weren't slaughtered immediately were exiled to Babylon from the land promised to them by God, where they'd lived and flourished as an independent nation. The rest were left to starve in the streets and get eaten by vultures.

Jeremiah managed to refrain from too much "I told you so." Instead, he went about trying to comfort the people by prophesying about the eventual return from exile and restoration of Jerusalem. He gave them advice about how to manage while living in Babylon and warned them not to go to Egypt, where things would be just as bad.

As Rabbi Michael Lerner points out, Jeremiah lived through the most critical point in Jewish history. Having been carted off to exile in Babylon, the Jews were about to disappear from history, probably to be assimilated into the culture of their captors. No ancient nation had ever returned from exile. Thanks to Jeremiah's ideas about personal responsibility and having an individual relationship with the one God, the Jews maintained their identity during the 70 years of foreign exile and Judaism itself was transformed in the process.

Gnarly Vibes

We have no idea who actually wrote or edited together the prophecies in the Book of Jeremiah. It almost certainly wasn't actually one guy named "Jeremiah," but it's possible that the outlook of the real, historical Jeremiah (who lived from the reign of Josiah to sometime after the fall of Jerusalem in roughly 586 B.C.) strongly influenced the perspective of the Book of Jeremiah, and that at least some genuine prophecies of Jeremiah are included. The book itself was put together at a later time—probably during the end of the Babylonian Exile (late 6th Century B.C.) when the people of Judah were finally allowed by King Cyrus of Persia to go home.

Jeremiah's prophecies all have a similar vibe. Jeremiah's desperately warning people about the great tragedy that's about to come down, and it's not a pretty picture. God's angry, and you wouldn't like him when he's angry. Jeremiah is definitely the Red Dawn of Major Biblical Prophets' Books. If you like dungeons and dragons (well, dungeons at least), apocalyptic visions of death and destruction, thundering hordes, eye-gouging, betrayal, and a total breakdown of society, this one's for you.

What is Book of Jeremiah About and Why Should I Care?

Rules, rules, rules. We're sick of 'em. Everyone's telling us how to run our lives like we don't have enough common sense to make good choices. Principals, teachers, parents, advertisers, the DMV, the Mayor—can't you trust us for one second? Do you enjoy telling us how to dress, when to study, what foods are allowed in the cafeteria, what we can do in our cars? Pretty soon you'll be telling us how many ounces of Dr. Pepper we're allowed to buy at one time. Oh, wait. You already did that.

Now, don't misunderstand Shmoop: we're not recommending anarchy here. Obviously, lots of rules are necessary to keep people living in peace, safety, health, and harmony. No texting while driving? Probably a good idea. Whole wheat pizza in the cafeteria? Well, there is that 30% obesity rate…

But sometimes, all the rules we have to follow seem really burdensome and arbitrary, especially when things are going well for us and we assume we're doing the right things. That's the situation that the Judeans of Jeremiah's day found themselves in. Life was pretty good, and the Judeans weren't paying much attention to the rules they were supposed to be living by. Even though those rules were given to them by God Himself and they were living in the city where God's presence hung out in the Temple. (Somehow that seems more rebellious than super-sizing your soda.)

You know how your parent(s) sometimes have the insane idea that because they totally support you financially, that makes it legit for them to set some house rules? Well, that's what God thought. He's kind of saying, "Look, I took you out of Egypt, totally had your back against all the other tribes, gave you this Promised Land, built this awesome beautiful city with a fancy Temple, and what do you do? I look away for two minutes and already you're dancing around a fire offering sacrifices to some Queen-of-Heaven goddess—ungrateful children!

The bottom line in Jeremiah is that, except for the rule about not having other gods, God ends up caring less about the exact details of his rules than about loyalty, respect, and closeness with his people. By obeying the rules, the Judeans would have been showing gratitude and respect to God for all they'd been given. It would have been a real relationship, which was what God really wanted. So next time your parents or guardians lay down some rules that don't seem to make sense to you, keep an open mind. They'll probably bend the rules a bit if they're feeling loved, valued, and respected. Shmoop employees' parents unanimously agree on that lesson from Jeremiah.

Book of Jeremiah Resources

WEBSITES

Bible Gateway, Jeremiah Translations
Ever wanted to read Jeremiah in Bulgarian? Well, if you did—you could definitely do it here. This website has almost every well-known English translation of the Bible, and a ton in other languages. It's an excellent resource.

Chabad on Jeremiah
The Hasidic Jewish organization Chabad provides a great deal of information on Jeremiah from their perspective.

My Jewish Learning on Jeremiah
This is a Masorti Jewish (or "Conservative" Jewish) assessment of Jeremiah, provided by Rabbi Louis Jacobs.

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS

Jeremiah on the Small Screen
In the 1998 made-for-TV movie Jeremiah, our guy is played by none other than Dr. McDreamy himself, Patrick Dempsey.

HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS

St. Augustine on Jeremiah
In these chapters from The City of God, St. Augustine argues that Jeremiah predicted the coming of Christ, and also tries to discredit a theory that Plato met Jeremiah.

John Calvin's Commentary on Jeremiah
Dig in to the famous Protestant reformer's commentary on the book of Jeremiah.

Rashi's Commentary on Jeremiah
The illustrious medieval French rabbi, Rashi, provides some penetrating insights in his commentary on Jeremiah.

VIDEO

"Preaching from the 'Underside' of the Book of Jeremiah," Renita J. Weems
In this 2008 Beecher Lecture at Yale Divinity School, Renita J. Weems discusses "Gods, Goddesses, and Matters of Gender" in Jeremiah.

Jeremiah Cartoon
This ancient cartoon seems like it may have been made in Jeremiah's time—lost prophecies from the crypt of the eons.

Yale "Literary Prophecy" Lecture
Professor Christine Hayes talks about the way the Major Prophets (including Jeremiah) viewed the fall of Jerusalem.

AUDIO

"Jeremiah was a Bullfrog," Three Dog Night
This hit—still as common as water or sunlight on the airwaves and inter-webs—originally began with the line, "Jeremiah was a prophet." But the singer changed it to "Jeremiah was a bullfrog" when everyone objected.

There is a Balm in Gilead
This hymn answers Jeremiah's question, "Is there a balm in Gilead?" (8:22). The answer the song gives is that there is such a balm "to heal the sin sick soul"—namely, faith in Jesus. It's a classic African-American Christian spiritual, here performed by Deborah Liv Johnson.

"Walk On," U2
U2's album All that You Can't Leave Behind pays tribute to Jeremiah with a reference on its cover. This song pays tribute to Burmese pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi—whose dedication through suffering reflects that of Jeremiah.

Classical Jeremiah
Many composers have put to music the biblical Book of Lamentations, which is usually attributed to Jeremiah. Check out Leonard Bernstein's "Jeremiah Symphony," guaranteed to make you weep like a prophet.

IMAGES

It's a Small 586 BCE World After All
Seriously, doesn't this sculpture of Zedekiah and Nebuchadnezzar look like it belongs in Disney World instead of the Kloster Zwiefalten?

The Lay of the Land
Here's a map of the ancient near east around Jeremiah's time. You can almost see what's coming down the pike for Babylon. That Persian Empire is humongous.

An Ancient Cistern in Israel
This image shows us, from the inside, the kind of cistern Jeremiah would've been imprisoned in, but minus the muck.

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, Rembrandt van Rijn
Rembrandt's painting is probably the most famous depiction of the prophet. As Jerusalem burns in the murky background, the prophet reacts with despair, sitting next to a pile of abandoned treasures. If you zoom in on his face you can see his pity for his people even more clearly.

Islamic Painting of Jeremiah along with Jonah and the Giant Fish
This 16th C. Turkish miniature painting shows Jeremiah at the bottom and Jonah at the top (we don't know why). The fish surrounding Jonah are probably more striking—by contrast, Jeremiah is just chilling, sitting there.

Slaughter of the Sons of Zedekiah Before their Father, Gustave Dore
The great 19th Century French illustrator, Dore, shows us King Zedekiah struggling against his Babylonian captors as his sons are murdered with spears and left in a pile in front of him. It's a pretty nasty scene, but those onlookers are so not impressed.

Ebed-melech Supervising the Work Crew that Got Jeremiah out of the Well.
He looks like he's had to do this before.