The Agora
The Lamentations of Jeremiah

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His life and times

"The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, Arise, and go down to the potter's house, and there I will cause thee to hear My words. Then I went down to the potter's house, and, behold, he wrought a work on the wheels. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it. Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying, O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter's hand, so are ye in Mine hand, O house of Israel. At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; If it do evil in My sight, that it obey not My voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them. Now therefore go to, speak to the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying, Thus saith the LORD; Behold, I frame evil against you, and devise a device against you: return ye now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good" (Jer 18:1-11).
The predictions made by Yahweh's prophets are often conditional. Just as a potter exercised his prerogative to reshape his work, God as the Master Potter, may choose to do the same -- He may not completely destroy His work. Yahweh may change His purpose with reference to His people when they change their conduct either for good or bad. In other words, the purpose of "prediction" can be to affect the conduct of the people to whom the "prediction" is given. If disaster is prophesied, it is a warning to turn from sin. If blessings are spoken of, it is to encourage the people to maintain an affection and loyalty for Yahweh.

The words of the prophets must be taken with utmost seriousness. Because of their function their word was always a specific word: a specific directive to a specific people, caught up in the never-to-be-repeated events of a specific time in their history. Moreover, it was very often a word that interpreted events, the events through which the people were passing or were about to pass (if the situation of their spiritual life remained unchanged), in the light of the Divine demands and promises. And this is why it is only against the background of their times that many of the sayings of the prophets come alive -- indeed, in many instances, make any sense at all.

Jeremiah was born in the year 645 BC approximately, in the reign of Manasseh. Judah had been a vassal of the Assyrian Empire for about 100 years.

In the year 745 BC Tiglath-pileser III (745-727), ascended the Assyrian throne. As he advanced toward the west, Rezin (of Damascus) and Pekah, son of Remaliah (of Israel) joined forces to repel him. They sought Judah's help, but Judah wisely refused. However, Ahaz against Isaiah's protest sent a large sum of tribute to Tiglath-pileser III to enlist his aid against Rezin and Pekah. With that gesture, Judah became dependent upon Assyria.

Tiglath-pileser III crushed the combined forces of Rezin and Pekah in 732, taking Damascus and large portions of Israel. Because she was a vassal, Judah was saved from the succeeding ravages of Shalmaneser V (727-722) and Sargon II (722-705) as they invaded what was left of Israel (Ephraim) and destroyed the capital city of Samaria (721). Judah's price was high -- not only was she a pawn to a foreign power, but she was forced to recognize Assyria's gods in the Temple.

Hezekiah reversed the policy of his father, increasing his efforts toward independence, while at the same time undertaking sweeping religious reforms. However, when Sennacherib came to the throne (705-681), things came to a head;

Hezekiah openly rebelled against the proud Assyrian. Sennacherib invaded Judah, reduced Judah's fortified cities, and slaughtered or deported a large number of their population. Only a last-minute angelic intervention spared Judah from complete overthrow at that time, and Sennacherib returned to other pursuits. The capital was spared and Hezekiah retained his throne, but the efforts for independence were short lived. When Hezekiah died, his son Manasseh declared himself a loyal Assyrian vassal. Hezekiah had reigned from 726-697.

Sennacherib's successors, Esarhaddon (681-669) and Asshurbanipal (669-627) conquered Egypt; during Manasseh's reign (697-642) the Assyrian Empire reached its greatest physical expansion. It is no wonder the Egyptians kept things stirred up in the area of Palestine -- they did not want to become subject to the Assyrians.

Under Manasseh's reign, altars to the Assyrian deities were erected within the temple confines; pagan practices of all sorts were given free rein, the fertility cult with its ritual of sacred prostitution being tolerated in the temple (2Ki 23:4-7; Zep 1:4). There was a general aping of foreign fashions and ways (Zep 1:8) along with enormous interest in the occult. But the most barbarous of all was human sacrifice -- with possibly even the king taking the lead in the proceedings (2Ki 21:6). It is possible that with the passage of time, the people worshipped the Assyrian gods and Yahweh side by side, without recognizing that they were doing wrong. The inevitable result of such widespread apostasy is found in Zep 1:9; 3:1-7. Those who dared to protest were dealt with severely (2Ki 21:16).

Assyria began to spread herself thin as a result of her conquests; she could not protect her borders. She was being threatened by various Indo-Aryan peoples to the north and the east. Chief among these were the Medes, who had pestered Assyria for over 200 years, and were now becoming potentially dangerous. Along the northern frontier, hordes of barbarians (Cimmerians and Scythians) were now established. Asshurbanipal found himself in trouble midway in his reign; Egypt, so recently conquered, could not be held. Psammetichus (664-610) of Egypt withheld tribute and seceded from the empire because of Assyria's weak situation.

Asshurbanipal's brother, who had been appointed deputy king of Babylon, rebelled against his brother in 652 BC, aided by Elam. (Manasseh may have also rebelled at this time, thus explaining 2Ch 33:11-13). After a two-year siege, the rebellion was controlled. In 640, Asshurbanipal began his march of revenge. He conquered Elam, the Arab tribes, and reasserted his authority in Palestine. He died in 627.

Manasseh's son Amon reigned for two years and was assassinated (642-640). Josiah, age eight, was placed upon the throne. When Asshurbanipal died (627), there was a dispute for his throne between his two sons. This plunged Assyria into civil war, leaving her very weak. Babylon took advantage of this whole set of circumstances and sought her freedom. Nabopolassar (626-605) took the throne from Assyria in 626. In 628 BC, Josiah had denounced the Assyrian gods, in effect declaring Judah's independence; Assyria, torn with civil strife, ceased to exercise even normal control over Palestine. With Judah now truly free for the first time in over 100 years, Josiah could carry out his reform measures.

* * *

It might be well to have the following in our minds before we continue:

•         626: Jeremiah is called to the ministry
Jeremiah's life is one of the loneliest and saddest in Scripture. His personal experiences were bitter; the message of disaster he had to proclaim was depressing and unwelcome; and the times in which he lived were of unparalleled calamity. His cause was lost from the beginning, because the people would not hear him. He was everywhere hated and misunderstood. While intensely loving and grieving for his countrymen and his nation, he was despised and persecuted as an enemy and a traitor.

In a short period of 40 years Jeremiah witnessed a temporary resurgence of true worship, saw it fall victim first to Egypt (Josiah's death), then to Babylon and finally watched it destroy itself while trying to break free from Babylon. His books reflect the tragic drama of the situation. Out of his agony, and the agony of his people, comes the sombre note of lamentation.

When Jeremiah began his ministry, he and Josiah were about the same age. It is truly touching watching these two young men -- prophet and king -- labouring to turn the nation to righteousness as the smoldering judgments of God hovered over the land; just as two young men -- a prophet and a king -- John and Jesus, did in the days of the nation's final judgment.

It is notable that Jeremiah's ministry began just forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the Temple by the Babylonians, as recorded in the Lamentations. We remember that Jesus began his ministry just forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the Temple by the Romans. In each case we see a period of final probation given to the city.

Jeremiah's mission was to witness for God against apostate and worldly Judah. But his work was not only as a witness of condemnation; it had a far more glorious purpose. It was to encourage and strengthen the scattered, faithful remnant -- of his own day and of all the ages since. And in our present time of crisis for the Truth, and imminent judgment, its message of comfort has great and sustaining power.

When the terrible judgments came, it would appear that God had completely rejected Israel, and that all hope was gone. But the lonely prophet with his message of eventual glory was a symbol that God was still concerned with them although they had been unfaithful, and his prophecies gave comforting assurance that those who held fast would never be forgotten, and that, though these dreadful evils should come, the latter end would be blessing and peace.

The name Jeremiah has become in the world proverbial for a pessimist. But we should know Jeremiah better than this. The world hates those who call attention to its wickedness and folly, and who raise their voice to warn of the judgments that will come upon it. But the duty of the watchmen is clear, whether in Jeremiah's day or ours:

"Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show My people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins" (Isa 58:1).
Jeremiah found he could not hold back: He must speak as God commanded:

"Then said I, I will not make mention of Him, nor speak any more in His Name. But His Word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay" (Jer 20:9).
The Jews of Jeremiah's day were typical of human nature in every age. They recognized that he was sent by God, yet they still blindly hated him for his faithful testimony, and resented his forebodings of judgment. Jeremiah lived in the day of the formation of the great image of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 2) -- the kingdom of men; we live in the days of the end of this great image, and the time heralding the construction of that great Kingdom of God. People do not change -- they do not really want to hear about the end of this system, because they think it would mean the end of pleasure for them; they are sometimes willingly ignorant of the true pleasure that awaits those who serve the true King.

When the Book of the Law was discovered in Josiah's reign, it is likely that he read of the evils which Moses had prophesied would come about if the Jews neglected God. He sent to inquire of God what he might do to avert this judgment. God's answer was that it was too late; the calamities were on the way. However, because Josiah was faithful and God-fearing, they would not come in his day. Thus the first fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah concerning a northern invader, may have been averted because of Josiah and the resurgence in his day of Judah's right worship. (The Scythians passed by Palestine. However, the Babylonians would not.) While he lived Josiah indeed did God's will, so that –-

"All his days the children of Israel departed not from following the LORD" (2Ch 34:33).
Not only did he cleanse Judah, but he was also instrumental in reducing idolatry in Israel.

As a result of what he read in the book, Josiah kept a last, great Passover feast in Jerusalem. The Passover was serene and peaceful, for it commemorated God's blessings upon His children, and deliverance from slavery. But God's blessings and forbearance were to cease, and Judah was to be delivered into slavery again. God had taken the yoke of Egypt from Israel's shoulders, and was about to replace it with the Babylonian yoke of iron because of their disobedience (Lam 1:14).

Though for a time there was a great show of piety on the part of the people, they failed to be truly transformed by God's Word. It appears that the reform only brought about a superficial righteousness or change. God is not and will not be mocked by hypocritical worship. The people had once more rallied around a human leader and failed to recognize their true leader -- God; when Josiah died the people once more turned from Yahweh. Josiah met his death thirteen years after the great Passover at the hands of Pharaoh Necho. Josiah delayed Necho long enough to prevent him from arriving in time to assist Assyria in recovering from Babylon, in a sense sealing Judah's fate (God-decreed) as an imminent victim of the newly arrived power (Babylon). God's Word also states that the righteous Josiah had been taken away from the evil to come -- a very sobering warning, had the Jews listened (2Ki 22:18-20).

It is recorded that Jeremiah renewed his ministry by lamenting for Josiah. Well he might, for he above all others would realize that with Josiah's death, the last curtain fell on the happiness and well-being of Judah. The nation now had 23 appointed years of existence left -- and they were to be a terrible 23 years. The most prominent part of Jeremiah's ministry now begins. He seems to have enjoyed an easy enough life up till now, but now he finds himself at increasing variance with the nation and its rulers as they head for destruction.

* * *

The people made Jehoahaz, [Josiah's son] king -- but he lasted only three months. The king of Egypt took him prisoner and set up his brother Jehoiakim in his stead. He reigned for eleven years, and Jeremiah had much to do with this ungodly, hateful man. In the first year of his reign, God commanded Jeremiah to stand in the temple court and proclaim to all the people that came there, that unless they put away their wickedness God would make the Temple a desolation and the city a curse --

"I [will make] this city as Tophet (byword, contempt)... the Valley of Slaughter" (Jer 19:12, 6).
The fifth year of Jehoiakim was the first year of Nebuchadnezzar, and a very significant year. Jeremiah tells the people that they have not hearkened to the Lord (Jer 25:3). Judah now has eighteen years left. At this time Jeremiah understands that the captivity is to last for seventy years, to fulfill the "sabbaths" which Judah has profaned.

Jeremiah is commanded to write these things in a book, and his faithful aide Baruch does so and delivers it to Jehoiakim. When a few sentences are read, the king seizes the book and begins to tear the pages, and cut them with a knife, and cast them in the fire. The same is to be done to the children of Judah themselves, as Ezekiel prophesied (ch. 5). They were so set in their ways that Jeremiah records:

"Yet they were not afraid, nor rent their garments, neither the king nor any of his servants that heard all these words" (Jer 36:24).
This seems to be the point at which the nation's doom was finally sealed. Each step of wickedness led them deeper and deeper into the pit.

Because of his prophecy, Jehoiakim seeks out Jeremiah, but the "LORD hid him" (36:26). At this time, Jeremiah rewrote his book, this time "adding many more words" (36:32). For his insulting manner, Jehoiakim receives the message that he is to be given the burial of an ass.

Now that his final written testimony of God has been nationally rejected, a new phase begins. Jeremiah is commanded to keep himself separate from this people, as a witness of their rejection by God. He is forbidden to join with them either in mourning or in feasting. He found himself in the same isolated position as the faithful find themselves in the world today. God often used the personal lives of the prophets in this way -- as living examples and object lessons. Like Jeremiah, God's people today are required to manifest a striking difference in their lives from the surrounding world, so that they will be unmistakable beacon-lights of the Truth. The way may seem hard, often demanding, but the believer must remember God's words of encouragement--

"Be not afraid of their faces: for I am with thee to deliver thee" (Jer 1:8).
Jeremiah was told that the people would not hearken, but would simply intensify their anger and resentment against him. Finally, the time came when he was forbidden to pray for them (14:11, 12). It had now come to this! All opportunity for the nation has passed; they are doomed. However, there would always be a remnant drawn out, so Jeremiah continued to preach and warn.

Nebuchadnezzar has made his first invasion, and still they do not listen to Jeremiah. In addition to this, Jehoiakim's reign was troubled with plundering by the surrounding nations. God slowly reduced Judah to ashes -- Jehoiakim along with it. He dies and suffers the final indignity of an ass's burial. Jehoiachin reigns for three months and is carried away captive to Babylon. But in that three-month period he leaves behind a definite record -- he did evil in the sight of God.

Finally comes Zedekiah -- weak, cowardly, evil Zedekiah -- called by Ezekiel a "profane, wicked prince". Zedekiah was not as bitter toward Jeremiah as Jehoiakim had been, but as disasters came upon Judah with increasing frequency, he came to hate Jeremiah.

The better and more righteous of the people had been carried to Babylon, as was shown in the vision of the figs (ch. 24). The very good figs are those like Daniel whom God had caused to be taken to Babylon, to escape the final dreadful days of the city. If we are found watching we will escape the final days of judgment on this wicked age. Jeremiah sent a letter to the captives in Babylon (Jer 29), telling them to seek the peace of the city, and to wait patiently upon God, to pray to Him and trust in Him. His words here are certainly for our benefit, for we are in practically the same position in the world today -- "strangers and pilgrims", with "no continuing city." While the false prophets are promising peace and safety and revival in two or three years, Jeremiah promises the captives that they are to be in captivity for seventy years -- but also that God will bring about a reversal, a return. God would not cast off His people forever.

In the final years of the kingdom, Zedekiah plots with Egypt against Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar decides that there is only one solution -- complete destruction of Jerusalem and Judah. His army comes and besieges Jerusalem; the details of the suffering are to be found in Lamentations. Zedekiah sends for Jeremiah; God's answer is harsh:

"Deceive not yourselves... the Chaldeans shall fight against this city, and take it, and burn it with fire" (37:8, 9).
Jeremiah is then cast into a filthy dungeon (after being beaten), where he remained many days. We are now in the ninth year of Zedekiah. The city has eighteen months left. Again Zedekiah asks:

"Is there any word from the LORD?"
Again the answer comes:

"Thou shall be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon" (v 7).
Jeremiah is released from the dungeon, but again the princes demand that he must die. He is lowered into a cistern, and left there to die. (He must be about 60 years old at this point.) He is then rescued by Ebed-melech, Zedekiah's servant; and he stays in the prison court for the remainder of the siege. Here he witnesses the happenings of which he writes in Lamentations. The Babylonians enter the city and destroy the Temple -- which had become a symbol of lip-service and outward ceremony (let us learn the lesson here). Later, against his will, Jeremiah is taken to Egypt by the few who remain in the land. We are not told in Scripture how, when, or where he dies.

The people had rejected the admonitions of the Spirit-inspired prophet. The Kingdom of God on earth is rent. The glory departs Israel, only to return momentarily in the person of Jesus Christ at his first advent. The long Gentile night has begun.

Look down, O God, with pitying eye,
And view the desolation round;
See what wide realms in darkness lie,
And hurt their idols to the ground.

With gentle beams on Zion's shine,
Raise up her kings, restore her priests,
And by Thine energy divine,
Let sacred love o'erflow their feast.

Then shall each age and rank agree
United shouts of joy to raise:
And Zion, made a praise by Thee,
To Thee shall render back the praise.
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