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If you're wondering why so many characters' names start with the letter "J," Shmoop explaineth. J represents the Hebrew "Y," which is part of one word for God: Yah. So these names all mean things like "God is gracious" (Johanan) or "He whom God has established" (Jehoiakim). Same with names ending in "iah" (Yah) or containing "el," another Hebrew word for God. And Jeremiah? It means "God exalts."
These guys were all false prophets. Ahab and Zedekiah (not to be confused with the other, more famous Ahab and Zedekiah) were Judean prophets exiled in Babylon who were incorrectly prophesying imminent liberation for the Judeans. So God made sure that they were punished by getting slaughtered by the invaders.
Shemaiah is a fake (though there was a true prophet named Shemaiah during Rehoboam's time in Israel, so don't get confused) who's among the exiles in Babylon. He writes a snotty letter asking the priest Zephaniah why he hasn't punished Jeremiah for being a madman.
Zephaniah tells Jeremiah about Shemaiah's complaint. Jeremiah tells him to write to the exiles, stating that Shemaiah will not have a descendant living to see the restoration of Judah, as punishment for his false prophecies.
Shaphan was a scribe, and the father of Ahikam (and the grandfather of Gedaliah, who was actually Ahikam's son). Ahikam helps Jeremiah hide from Jehoiakim, who's trying to kill Jeremiah for questioning his policy towards Babylon and for issuing so many harsh prophecies.
Ebed-melech is an Ethiopian citizen of Jerusalem who helps save Jeremiah after he's thrown into a cistern. Ebed-melech convinces King Zedekiah to give him permission to free Jeremiah. In return, God promises Ebed-melech that he'll be safe from the consequences of the Babylonian invasion and will die a natural death. This is the best a person can hope for, evidently.
In Chapter 29, Elasah is a son of Shaphan who delivers a letter from Jeremiah, telling the Judean elders in Babylon that the Judeans in exile won't return home—not in their lifetimes anyway. The letter urges the people to try to live normal lives: build houses, plant gardens, etc.
Elnathan is a bad guy who hunts down the prophet Uriah son of Shemaiah in Egypt, and brings him back to King Jehoiakim, who kills Uriah with a sword. 'Nuff said.
After Zedekiah's overthrown, the Babylonians appoint Gedaliah the governor of Judah. But Gedaliah fails to heed the warnings of the warrior Johanan, and a rebellion led by Ishmael leads to his assassination. In Jeremiah, he's depicted as being a decent guy overall.
Hananiah is a false prophet who seems to win a little victory over Jeremiah before losing in a big way. Trying to reassure the people of Judah, and right in front of our guy, Hananiah claims that God's about to destroy the Babylonians and lead them away from Jerusalem. Jeremiah's been standing around wearing a wooden yoke around his neck, one of several props he uses to make a point, symbolizing how Judah will be taken captive by King Nebuchadnezzar. Hananiah takes off the yoke and breaks it.
But Jeremiah gets word from God that the wooden yoke will be replaced with a yoke of iron—Judah's really in for it now. God also says that Hananiah will die in the next year as punishment for being a false prophet. Jeremiah tells this to Hananiah, and of course it comes true. The dude dies. False prophecy is one of God's least favorite things.
Irijah is a sentinel who accuses Jeremiah of attempting to defect to the Babylonians, and then has his officials beat and imprison him in the house of a secretary named Jonathan.
Ishmael's a bad guy who leads a rebellion against Gedaliah, the governor of Judah who was appointed by the Babylonians. He kills Gedaliah and packs a cistern with the dead bodies of the people he's massacred, including slaughtering an innocent group of pilgrims. Ishmael loses the rebellion, but manages to escape to the Ammonites with his life.
Like Zedekiah, Jehoiakim is another stubborn king who can't bring himself to listen to Jeremiah. For instance, Jehoiakim burns a scroll on which Jeremiah recorded his prophecies, making poor Baruch to do it all over again since the copier's on the fritz again.
He also kills the true prophet, Uriah son of Shemaiah, who'd tried to escape Jehoiakim's death sentence by fleeing to Egypt. Unlike other unrighteous kings, Jehoiakim apparently gets to die of natural causes.
Jehoiachin is the king who comes between Shallum (Jehoahaz) and Zedekiah. In Chapter 22, God, speaking through Jeremiah, attacks Jehoiachin, saying he'd toss him away even if he were God's own signet ring (22:24-25). He's taken prisoner by the Babylonians and sent into exile. At the end of the book, in an interesting turn of events, he's released from prison and permitted to dine in luxury with a new Babylonian king, Evil-Merodach.
King Zedekiah sends these guys as messengers to Jeremiah, secretly asking him to ask God to have mercy on him. Ultimately, God doesn't agree to this request. The Babylonians are definitely going to conquer and that's his final answer.
Johanan tries to warn Gedaliah about Ishmael's impending rebellion, but fails. He also fails to capture Ishmael after Gedaliah's assassination, though he does manage to end the rebellion.
But here's where he goes wrong: in attempting to avoid the wrath of the Babylonians, Johanan leads many of the remaining non-exiled Israelites into Egypt. This turns out to be a bad move. God promises them that they will all die when the Babylonians attack Egypt, through war, famine, and disease.
Jeremiah begins his prophetic mission during the reign of King Josiah. Josiah's not only a good king, but an ideal one. 2 Kings depicts him as a virtuous guy who takes a bold stand for the worship of the God of Israel, mainly by killing everyone who participates in other foreign religious practices. But his reforms didn't hold up, and even during Josiah's reign, Jeremiah's already denouncing Israel for betraying God. He was ahead of the curve.
Josiah's mentioned in Jeremiah, but doesn't appear as a character.
Nebuchadnezzar's the Babylonian king and conqueror who invades Judah, totally destroys the land and the city, and sends virtually everyone into exile. In the Book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar's a much more complex figure who's eventually converted to the worship of the Israelites' God.
In this case however, he's not so much a character as an instrument of God's wrath, the guy sent to punish the Israelites for their prolonged disobedience. He orders Zedekiah's eyes plucked out, and makes sure that Zedekiah's sons, royal officials, priests, and others are executed. So yeah, this guy's not exactly warm and cuddly. But we can't hold him completely responsible, because he's following orders he doesn't even know exist.
The Babylonian officials are the people responsible for presiding over the destruction of Jerusalem. They burn and loot the temple, kill lots of people, and generally accomplish God's destructive will with enthusiasm. However, Nebuzaradan, the head guy, is also kind towards Jeremiah. He doesn't force Jeremiah into exile and lets him stay in Judah.
Pashur's a malicious priest who'd like to kill Jeremiah or, at the very least, throw him into a pit to die (which he does on one occasion). Furious at Jeremiah's dire but true prophecies, Pashur has him beaten before putting him into the stocks. After being freed, Jeremiah goes back to Pashur and tells him that God has given him the new name "Terror All Around." Awesome, right? That's right up there with "Braggart Who Missed His Chance."
Anyway, this isn't actually as cool as it first seems: the wickedness of Pashur is going to lead to "Terror All Around" when everyone gets taken off to Babylon, Pashur included. Also some of Pashur's friends will get killed in the process.
Jeremiah for the win.
Seraiah's a messenger who carries a letter written by Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon. It predicts Babylon's downfall and the liberation and restoration of Judah. Jeremiah tells Seraiah to tie a stone to the letter and sink it in the Euphrates River, after he's read it. He's to say that Babylon will sink into ruin just like the letter sinking into the river.
Shallum is a son of Josiah who rules briefly as king for three months, before he's dragged away as a prisoner by the Egyptians. He never returns to Judah, and his brother Jehoiakim replaces him.
Jeremiah denounces Shallum in Chapter 22: he sees Shallum as a materialistic and unjust kid interested in "competing in cedar" (22:15), meaning doing pointless and expensive construction projects instead of dealing righteously with the oppressed and needy.
Uriah's another true prophet who, like Jeremiah, predicts doom for the Judeans via the impending Babylonian conquest during the reign of King Jehoiakim. But for some reason, while God protects Jeremiah, Uriah isn't so lucky. King Jehoiakim orders him put to death, so he runs away to Egypt. But Jehoiakim's henchman Elnath leads a team of bad guys who track him down. They bring him back to Jehoiakim who personally kills Uriah with a sword.