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If you were to see him on the street, your first thought might be, "Hey, Jeremiah's a pretty weepy guy"—hence his nickname, "The Weeping Prophet." He brings news from God, but hardly any of it is good news and no one wants to hear it. People keep imprisoning Jeremiah and tossing him into muddy pits, since he can't control his impulse to spread God's word. This gives him ample opportunities to weep.
Biblical historians believe that Jeremiah was born around 650 BCE in Anathoth, a small town close to Jerusalem, the son of a priestly family that owned enough property that Jeremiah could enter the life of the prophet without worrying about supporting himself financially. (Source). Still, Jeremiah doesn't seem to like his mission all that much and resents how his prophetic call has forced him to go without the basic joys of life—marriage, a family, a normal social life, a Twitter account (@weepyprophetguy). He complains to God, sounding a lot like Job, even accusing God:
Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail. (15:18)
Even if all that, he's a compassionate, kind person who loves his people but has to give them bad news about their imminent destruction. This pains him:
God promises he's going to make everything better in the end. Yet the picture the Book of Jeremiah gives of its prophet is overwhelmingly that of a sufferer, regardless of whatever happened after its story ended (Jeremiah probably got taken to Egypt and died there).
Jeremiah never leads anything like what a Judean of that time would've considered a "normal" life. God's told him that it would be pointless, since he's bringing a world of hurt to Judah and any wives and children he had would just die a gruesome death. He forbids him from entering a house of mourning and from celebrating with other people.
He's constantly butting heads with people who should be sympathetic to him, like the priests and other prophets. But the priests harass him because he's not a big fan of the Temple sacrifices, which is what they do for a living. And the other prophets are tired of hearing him accuse them of false prophecy. He's really isolated and has no one to turn to for emotional support. So he spills out his frustration to God.
He must feel really close to God to be so upfront about things, because we have tons of evidence that God doesn't like to be questioned by most people.
Because he discloses so much about his feelings, we readers get to know Jeremiah very well. Whoever wrote the biographical parts of the book (maybe his scribe Baruch) tells us a lot about his long and frustrating career. We see him interacting with the townspeople, kings, and other leaders and prophets. We get a good feel for the constant struggle he's going through in having to deliver a really unpopular message. He's imprisoned, left for dead, ignored, mocked—not an easy gig.
Even though no one listens to him, and he's constantly ridiculed and being beaten, imprisoned, or threatened with death, he stays on message. As soon as he's let out of prison, he starts prophesying to the people who put him there. How brave is that?
The next morning when Pashhur released Jeremiah from the stocks, Jeremiah said to him, The Lord has named you not Pashhur but "Terror-all-around." (20:3)
He must have really trusted in God's promise to protect him through all this.
Jeremiah's an easy guy to have compassion for. Some of the passages in Jeremiah are incredibly personal and realistic for a Biblical book. Shmoop's favorite? The one where he's getting rescued from the well:
So Ebed-melech took the men with him and went to the house of the king, to a wardrobe of the storehouse, and took from there old rags and worn-out clothes, which he let down to Jeremiah in the cistern by ropes. Then Ebed-melech the Ethiopian said to Jeremiah, "Just put the rags and clothes between your armpits and the ropes." Jeremiah did so. Then they drew Jeremiah up by the ropes and pulled him out of the cistern. (38:11-13)
You can almost see the old guy in the muck at the bottom of the pit, shoving the rags under his arms so the ropes don't chafe as they pull him up. Gets us every time.
As the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, Jeremiah was no mere mouthpiece for God. He was overwhelmed with emotion at what he had to do, "overpowered" by God's words. He had sympathy for God's position while also having enormous compassion for the Judeans who had turned away from God and were paying a heavy price for it. He was a passionate guy, and this comes across throughout the book.
O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, "Violence and destruction!" For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, "I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name," then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. (20:7-9)
Maybe it's because Jeremiah discloses his own inner life ("in touch with his feelings" and all that), that he's the perfect prophet to introduce a new way of thinking about the people's relationship to God. The Israelites are failing, not just because they're no longer ritually obedient to God, but because they're not putting their hearts into what they're doing. Jeremiah predicts a time when the outward ways of observing ritual will simply fall away, to be replaced by a different covenant, an inward one, related to what exists in a person's heart. The Ark of the Covenant won't be remembered or thought of in those days. People will carry the equivalent of the Ark inside themselves, with the law written on their hearts.
This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, "Know the Lord," because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. (31:33-34)
Jeremiah knew that it would be hugely important for the people in exile to continue to have a relationship with God despite not having a Temple of Ark and despite living in a foreign culture with its own religious practices. So this emphasis on inner devotion was an important shift if the Hebrews were to survive exile. It was the beginning of Judaism as it exists today.
Jeremiah helped the people of Judah deal with the coming disaster by promising that they would eventually be restored to Judah, re-establish their relationship with God, and live in peace and prosperity again. Even though their disobedience warranted punishment, God still loved them best and wouldn't hide himself from them permanently. He encouraged them to hang in there while in exile and try to live a normal life in Babylon.
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn. […] Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow (31: 10-13).
Jeremiah had the "long view" of this episode in Jewish history, and even though he didn't live to see the return of the exiles, he had a boatload of compassion for the suffering Hebrews. He gives them tools for coping in Babylon, reassuring him that their relationship with God depends only on them, not on anything their ancestors did or didn't do.
According to the Jewish sage Rashi, Jeremiah was a descendant of the righteous prostitute, Rahab, who helped the Israelites defeat the city of Jericho. This is a weird claim, since Jeremiah loves to attack Israel for being a prostitute in a figurative sense. Maybe Rashi was implying some sort of symbolic relation—Jeremiah was descended from a prostitute as an individual, and he's also coming from a people who have prostituted themselves to other gods. Or maybe the implication is that Jeremiah knew that if a prostitute could repent and serve God, then any person can.