In short, "Prophecy" is a genre that records the stuff prophets say, which happens to be the same things God says since prophets speak with the voice of God. The genre also typically includes stories about the prophets. So, if you're cruising around Jeremiah, you'll find everything from classic doom 'n' gloom prophecy, to hymns or liturgical poems, to biographical and autobiographical tales of Jeremiah's exploits.
Something worth keeping in mind is that prophecy didn't just mean predicting the future, in the ancient world. Prophets weren't just the local fortune-tellers. Sometimes (i.e., a lot of the time), Jeremiah is there to speak truth to power (like kings) or just to the numbskulls of Israel. He's equally concerned with the snafus of the past and the iniquities of the present, as he is with the next batch of historical events.
And, when it comes to the writing, all these diverse goals and genres represented mean that it's a really colorful, and sometimes all-over-the-place, composition. The voice of God tends to explode with images and metaphors. When God speaks directly to the prophets, he tends to skip around from point to point, not confined by a narrative. He'll be predicting destruction, then will suddenly switch to promising peace, or will bring up a good metaphor or image to instruct people.
One of the distinctive things about Jeremiah as a prophetic book is that it pioneered the "jeremiad"—a term for a piece of writing that angrily attacks something with prophetic fury. Within the genre of prophecy, Jeremiah fits comfortably as a prophet of wrath, as opposed to some of the more intensely visionary prophecies of Isaiah and Ezekiel, which tend to go beyond justice and punishment.
(Oh, and Jeremiah is the longest of all the prophetic books as well, word for word.)
The title is Jeremiah's name: "Jeremiah." There, done—we can go home.
But we won't, because we want to point out how deeply the book goes into Jeremiah's character. His book's worthy of his name because it doesn't only record the prophecies ascribed to him; it also shows us something of the inner man. And the inner man is really despairing.
We really see Jeremiah's inner anguish—his fear of his persecutors, his wish to have never been born, his existential despair. It's all spelled out in painful detail. Where Isaiah retains an air of mystery (we don't know too much about his personal life), we see Jeremiah's experiences and struggles up close, from early childhood until sometime close to his death.
The last chapter of Jeremiah is a recap of the destruction of Jerusalem and the beginning of the Babylonian Captivity. We've seen these events before, but we get to see them repeated over again: Zedekiah gets his eyes cut out after watching his sons killed. Yeah, cheery stuff.
But we also get to see the exiled King Jehoiachin let out of prison and permitted to eat at the table of the Babylonian King Evil-Merodach (and, yeah, you wish that was your name). So there's always a silver-lining and the book ends on this weird note of tentative hopefulness. Just as their former king is released from prison, so will the people as a whole eventually escape their exile.
In her book Jeremiah: Pain and Promise, Kathleen O'Connor comments that the ending of the book doesn't really have an ending—it just stops. She thinks that there are actually two other "endings." One is when Baruch writes down Jeremiah's prophecies, because this lets us know that even though J-Man won't be around forever, his words will live on. The second "real" ending is the prophecy of the eventual destruction of Babylon, which gives us some closure on the whole bloody business. (Source.)
After all the cataclysmic events in the story, the very last sentence ends with a pretty modest and anticlimactic detail: the formerly imprisoned King Jehoiachin is given "a regular allotment of food" for the rest of his life. On the other hand, the people who first read this text lived in a society where regular meals weren't always a sure thing. So having this basic need met was maybe a luxury worth mentioning.
The book takes place in Ancient Judah, during the span of Jeremiah's prophetic mission—from roughly 630 to 580 BCE. It's a time of immense suffering, warfare and destruction. The destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel had happened around 740 BCE, when the Israelites were conquered by the Assyrian Empire and the people sent off to live in Assyria. (These are the Ten Lost Tribes you've heard about.) The Judean kings of Jeremiah's time were probably intimately familiar with what had happened to the northern kingdom, since some of the people had fled south into Judah.
King Josiah, who ruled in the mid-seventh-century BCE, had tried to return the people to following God's laws. The High Priest Hilkiah, assumed to be the father of Jeremiah, had discovered a scroll of Jewish law during a renovation of the Temple in Jerusalem, which had fallen into disrepair and was being used to worship Baal. In the Temple. Are you kidding us? Anyway, Josiah recognized the scroll as the laws given to Moses at Mt. Sinai, possibly a copy of the Book of Deuteronomy. He outlawed idol worship, returned the Ark of the Covenant to the Temple in Jerusalem and threw out all traces of idol worship. He killed any pagan priests living in Judea along with their followers.
So far, so good. But later kings didn't enforce Josiah's reforms and the Judeans were soon back to their pagan, Baal-worshipping ways. And in 586 BCE the Babylonians invade, burning the Temple and Jerusalem to the ground and dragging most of the Judeans into exile. Jeremiah explains why all this is happening, lending a sense of order and justice to a time that likely seemed very chaotic.
Jeremiah sees the kings of Judah degenerate from the benevolent and just Josiah to incompetent and rather bad kings like Jehoiachin and Zedekiah. He continually tries to show them where they're going wrong, but no luck and no more second chances. The course of history is set. But his prophecies proved valuable for the people living in the aftermath of the exile and during the release from exile.
For a small geographic area, Judea was of great interest to the major powers that surrounded it. Because of its strategic location along the sea and trade routes, it was always at the center of conflict between the larger ancient kingdoms of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. But the Hebrews, who probably started to arrive around 1200 BCE, managed to stay there until the Babylonian exile.
Okay, try to retain your composure—yeah, we know: we're talking about circumcision… but it's circumcision of the HEART, people… Jest if you must.
Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, remove the foreskin of your hearts, O people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or else my wrath will go forth like fire, and burn with no one to quench it, because of the evil of your doings. (4:4)
Jeremiah realizes that in order for the people to stay on God's good side, they'll have to internalize the commandments rather than just be forced to follow them and get punished if they don't. The motivation will have to come from them. Jeremiah's probably tired of always having to be the enforcer on God's behalf and getting nowhere. So the circumcision, which represents God's covenant with the people, will have to be an inner event.
Actually, this particular symbol and verse—"the circumcised heart"—became a central point in the parting of the ways between Christianity and Judaism. Shortly after Jesus's death, there were Jewish followers of Jesus who believed that one still needed to observe certain ritual parts of the Mosaic Law, particularly circumcision and the dietary laws. However, the Apostle Paul argued against this, citing the above verse from Jeremiah.
Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God. (Romans 2:29)
On the other hand, staying within the book itself, Jeremiah isn't arguing against actual circumcision at all; he's just saying that it's not enough. Real obedience to God needs to have an inner as well as outer dimension—the heart and the emotions play a central role, as well as the physical body. After the destruction of the Temple and the exile to Babylon (and the much later destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE), many rituals weren't available to the Jews. So the move toward inner devotion was a necessary one, and it had a huge influence on the subsequent development of Jewish worship and theology.
The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel understood the circumcision of the heart to mean the removal of the protective layer around the heart that could get in the way of a completely intimate relationship between an individual and God. Only with that layer peeled away could there be a truly wholehearted relationship.
This is one prophecy that partly came true. Jeremiah (or someone who wrote the relevant prophecy) predicted that the original Ark of the Covenant would disappear and people would no longer think about it. That was a pretty big deal, since the Ark had traveled with the people, along with God's spirit, until its enshrinement in the Temple of Jerusalem:
And when you have multiplied and increased in the land, in those days, says the Lord, they shall no longer say, 'The ark of the covenant of the Lord.' It shall not come to mind, or be remembered, or missed; nor shall another one be made. At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the Lord, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the Lord in Jerusalem, and they shall no longer stubbornly follow their own evil will. (3:16-17)
We'd say yes to the first part of the prophecy, but no to the second. Most people don't really think about the original Ark anymore as an object of worship—except for Indiana Jones and his rival Nazi archaeologists, of course. And no one seems to know where it is, although the Ethiopian Church claims to possess it. Personally, we think it's in that warehouse at the end of the movie.
However, all synagogues have an "aron kodesh," a Holy Ark, where Torah scrolls are kept. These scrolls are the first five books of the Bible, which contain the instructions written on the tablets Moses brought down from Sinai—the supposed contents of the original Ark. These are the rules that the Judeans were constantly breaking and getting punished for as a result. And the ark is placed on the eastern side of the sanctuary (at least in the Western hemisphere), so Jews are always facing Jerusalem when they pray.
Whenever the Torah's brought out to be read, there are prayers describing what happened in Moses' day when the Ark was picked up to be moved or set back down when the Israelites went from place to place in the desert. So clearly, the Torah is a living embodiment of the lost Ark. There are references to the ancient Ark throughout Jewish liturgy, so we'd say that people didn't really forget about it. It's still a huge symbolic presence in Jewish worship even though the original is long gone.
Jeremiah says that God will be praised not only for leading the Israelites out of Egypt, but for leading their descendants out of Babylon, as well.
Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, "As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt," but "As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them." For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their ancestors. (16:14-15)
So Jeremiah's looking back to the Exodus and finding the relevance for his own time period. The Hebrews in Egypt forgot their true identity, couldn't remember their own God until Moses reminded them. Jeremiah sees the forgetfulness of the Judeans and their worship of foreign gods as a parallel case. But in a way, exile will actually cure it: the experience of punishment will rekindle a feeling of devotion in them, and lead them back to the God of Israel.
In Chapter 22, God shows Jeremiah two baskets of figs placed before God's temple. But it's not lunchtime; it's moral lesson time. Come on—we're talking about God here. He's not feeding you figs without some sort of greater purpose in mind. Making Fig Newtons, maybe?
So here's the greater symbolic purpose: one of the baskets contains really good figs, premium figs, Whole Foods quality stuff. But the other basket has bad figs, which are so bad that they can't be eaten, even in Fig Newton form. God says that the good figs symbolize the people of Judah who will survive the Babylonian exile and eventually return. The bad figs are King Zedekiah, the royal officials, the people who will remain in Judah and Jerusalem, and those who live in Egypt. They'll all endure tremendous suffering and will probably die from war, disease, or famine.
Vegetation imagery pops up a lot in the prophets. People are like fruit that God grows on a vine. If it turns out to be good fruit, God will take it (and probably metaphorically bake it into a pie or make wine out of it or something, though we don't know what that would mean). But if it's bad fruit, he'll squash it and burn down the whole field or vineyard as well. He doesn't do anything halfway.
Grapevines and fig trees are often used in the Bible as symbols of prosperity. The prophet Micah (4:4) described a time of peace when "they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid." Having your own vines and fig trees was kind of like having two cars in the garage and a freezer full of Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey.
In parts of the Book of Jeremiah, God addresses Judah as a female, typically an adulterous wife cheating on God. Israel's even compared with a female camel or "wild ass…in her heat, sniffing the wind." (Jeremiah 2:24). (To be fair, Jeremiah also attacks men who were "like well-fed stallions, each neighing after his neighbor's wife," see 5:8). At other times, God speaks of Judah as a "virgin daughter" (14:17).
Early on, God says that Israel was once like a faithful bride:
I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Israel was holy to the Lord, the first fruits of his harvest. All who ate of it were held guilty; disaster came upon them, says the Lord. (2:3)
But this didn't last, and Israel started worshipping other gods. God says, "You have polluted the land with your whoring and wickedness" (3:2).
It's a strange metaphor in a way. Whereas the gods of other countries had wives who were also divine—goddesses like Hera, the wife of Zeus—and would occasionally stop by to impregnate individual human women, the Biblical God depicts himself as being married to his people (though he's getting a temporary divorce in Jeremiah). Also the fact that God punishes his wife for adultery and disobedience with war, famine, and disease is clearly troubling to many people. In ancient times, the devotion of a wife to her husband mirrored the devotion of a people to their ruler. This was important in holding society together, which is why adultery by the wife was so severely punished. At the same time, it's something to think about as people continue to debate the Bible and its meaning.
The NRSV interprets this passage as referring to Israel—but it would make more sense, in The Book of Jeremiah's case, if it referred to Babylon (since Babylon really is God's war club in Jeremiah, whereas Judah's the victim.
You are my war club, my weapon of battle: with you I smash nations; with you I destroy kingdoms; with you I smash the horse and its rider; with you I smash the chariot and the charioteer; with you I smash man and woman; with you I smash the old man and the boy; with you I smash the young man and the girl; with you I smash shepherds and their flocks; with you I smash farmers and their teams; with you I smash governors and deputies. (51:20-23)
This is pretty straightforward. Jeremiah's God is a God of War. He wants to demonstrate his superiority over other competing gods and the people who worship them. His preferred method for doing this is obvious: smashing stuff.
Not only does God compare Judah to a disobedient wife, he also compares it to a filthy loincloth that is now unusable, though it used to be his (God's) loincloth. That's right—God says, "For as the loincloth clings to one's loins, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the Lord, in order that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory. But they would not listen" (13:11).
So God's suggesting that he and Judah should really be on pretty intimate terms. Judah would be, in the modern world, like God's pants (though a loincloth is a little more personal than pants, since it's effectively like shorts and underwear rolled into one). But they haven't been good pants. Judah's not a freshly pressed pair of Dockers khakis. Judah's a horribly ruined pair of Dockers khakis. So God will cast it away for its sins into the giant dumpster of Babylon.
But maybe Babylon is actually more of a Laundromat in this case, since Judah will eventually be restored, and peace will reign. God makes his break with Judah sound permanent at times, but he says it really isn't.
The Rechabites are a nomadic group of people who take refuge from the Babylonian invasion by holing up in Jerusalem. In Chapter 35, God tells Jeremiah to offer them wine, but they refuse, saying that their ancestor, Jehonadab, told them not to drink any wine. God then holds up the Rechabites as a great example of obedience. They've been faithful to their ancestors' principles, but Judah can't even be faithful to the principles handed down to them by God himself.
Along with the other prophets, Jeremiah loves a good vegetation metaphor (see our earlier comments on figs, e.g.). In the second chapter, God attacks Judah for being a domesticated vine that went rogue: "Yet I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock. How then did you turn degenerate and become a wild vine?" (2:21) So Judah has gone all "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes"—rebellious fruit (because tomatoes are technically a fruit) on a madcap binge of idolatry.
But some vegetation metaphors are positive. In Chapter 3:5-6, God states, "The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: 'The Lord is our righteousness.'" Whoever the "Branch" is he's going to be the savior of his people, whether you are interpreting the "Branch" as a Messiah yet to come, Jesus, Bahaullah, or anybody else.
When God shows Jeremiah an almond tree in blossom in 1:11-12, and says he's "watching over his word to perform it," the great Biblical commentator Rashi explains that this is because the almond tree blossoms before all other trees. Therefore God's word will be fulfilled before anything else comes to fruition (any of the schemes of humans.) (Source.)
All of these images compare human society to a something that must be cultivated in order to grow and flourish, like any plant in any garden. It must be carefully tended or else it's "Killer Tomatoes" all over again.
As we know by this point, Jeremiah's God, like Guns n' Roses, has an immense "Appetite for Destruction." So naturally, he compares humans to easily smash-able wine jars and earthenware jugs. This also shows that humans are like vessels, in that they're meant to hold certain things: devotion or the knowledge of God, ideally. But instead, God punishes them for their sins by filling them with drunkenness and confusion and smashing them against each other (13:12-14).
In Chapter 18, God also compares himself to a potter. Clay is the ultimate shape-able stuff. If the pot God's making gets deformed, he'll simply smash it and then soften the clay and remake it into a new pot. It's a perfect metaphor for what he's doing to Judah: smashing it with the Babylonian invasion, softening it and then shaping it with life in exile, before finally remaking it and allowing the Judeans to return home renewed and full of longing for God.
In Chapter 27, God commands Jeremiah to wear a wooden yoke, symbolizing the yoke of captivity that Babylon will put on Judah by conquering it. However, in Chapter 28, the false prophet Hananiah snaps the yoke off Jeremiah's neck, claiming that Babylon will withdraw and will leave Judah in peace. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
God tells Jeremiah that he'll replace the wooden yoke with a yoke of iron on Judah's neck, so Babylon is going to yoke them even more securely now. Additionally, God says Hananiah will die soon, which he does.
But God also says that he will eventually break the yoke off the neck of Israel, and they won't serve strangers anymore.
A guy gets his eyes plucked out? Say no more. We could make the case for PG-13, since so much of it's just prophecy—all talk and no action. But there's action too, and it's pretty bloody. We see slaughtered pilgrims at the bottom of a pit, the King's sons murdered in front of him, and destruction on an epic scale: all the nations in the Middle East get it. There are no drugs to speak of except for wine and the sex is mainly metaphorical. But the violence wins Jeremiah an R.