THE LAST DAYS OF JERUSALEM, JUDAH AND JEREMIAH: The order that Emperor Nebuchadnezzar attempted to establish in Zion, under his appointed King Gedeliah, is upset with Gedeliah’s murder at the hands of Ishmael Ben Nethaniah, possibly at the instigation of Nebuchadnezzar’s appointed regent over Amon, King Baalis. (ch. 40-41). The counterstroke by Johanan Ben Kareah leaves a confused and vulnerable remnant wondering whether to flee to Egypt or await Nebuchadnezzar’s judgment on all the chaos. Jeremiah’s counsel, to continue submitting to Nebuchadnezzar, is rejected, and Jeremiah is taken, against his will, along with other hostages and anti-Babylonian partisans, to Egypt.
Their deliberate return to Egypt represents the lowest possible point of Israel’s disgrace. Babylon is where the Abrahamic story began. Exile in Babylon, from where came Abraham, represents a reset of the cycle and the story. Egypt, by contrast, represents slavery. To choose Egypt, deliberately, is to set one’s face against the mission, the faith, and the God, of Abraham.
Egypt had already proven herself powerless and unreliable on behalf of her allies, even though Egypt had likely had a hand in instigating and encouraging some of the self-defeating revolts against Babylon that had resulted in three waves of deportation. Even in Egypt, they would not escape the reach of Babylon’s power, as Jeremiah predicted in chapter 43, a promise that may have been fulfilled in a later attack of Nebuchadnezzar’s army upon Egypt, in 567 BC, after which Nebuchadnezzar did not remain to occupy Egypt (Egyptian history suggests that he was repulsed eventually). As for Jeremiah’s prophecy regarding Pharoah Hophra (44: 30), he was killed in a coup d’etat in 567.
So, Jeremiah prophesies doom and destruction in Egypt for the particular remnant that seems to have taken him there against his will. Their deaths there will be his as well. But he alone would die with hope for his people. And Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe and friend, would also find his life extended in reward for his faithfulness (ch. 45).
Jeremiah’s prophecy ends with basically the same account of II Kings 24-25, about the fall of Zion and the Exile to Babylon. This brings the story full circle back to everything that God told Jeremiah in chapter 1. As tragic as it was, the royal clemency, exercised toward the one Judean king who had willingly submitted to Babylon’s yoke, Jehoichin, is a note of hope speaking of better things to come for Israel.
JEREMIAH AND THE NATIONS. Chapters 46-51 recount Jeremiah’s prophecies about neighboring nations, including their conqueror, Babylon. The conquerors of Babylon, the Medes from the North, are even mentioned (51:11). Jeremiah’s dire predictions for Babylon, fulfilled over the courses of centuries, were even sent along with the staff of King Zedekiah, to put the shocking and overwhelming imperial and idolatrous spectacle that was Babylon into perspective for the Jews. They would sustain their hope in God’s sovereignty over even nations as powerful and prosperous as Babylon, and they would keep them ready and prepared to return to Zion.
The surprising assumption of these prophecies, given the time, is that Israel’s YHWH God is God over the nations, all the earth, not just Israel, and that God works with and through the nations and creation in ways that are too big for the narrow, immediate viewpoint of humans to catch. The result is that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” said Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Such a view would have been surprising, in light of Babylon’s supreme ascendancy, and disturbing to the prophets and priests of those nations, who equated military power and victory with the might and victory of their gods.
Because these prophecies about the nations come at the end of Jeremiah does not mean that they came late in his ministry, nor that they all necessarily apply to the years following the Exile. They may be a collection of earlier prophecies, gathered together because of their common focus, because they seem to speak of sufferings and defeats that they will share with Israel at the hand of Nebuchadnezzar. Of special note is the tone of Jeremiah’s prophecies, often expressed as lamentations. Thus he displays care and compassion for them, as well as for Israel. This prophetic heart for all humanity will find its fulfillment and expression in the prophetic gospel ministry of Jesus toward Israel and the Gentiles.
…is a personal lament, but with corporate liturgical elements, such as the words, “In God, whose word I praise,” or “What can [mere] man do to me?” which are repeated. What sounds like an individual lament may then have had corporate, liturgical expression in worship, with priests or the congregation participating and responding with the phrases mentioned above. This is a far cry from so much contemporary worship, in which our personal pains, failures and broken relationships are often kept segregated, hidden or in denial. We would do well to explore the connection between worship, justice and the care of souls that are bound together in Psalm 56.
That our tears, sufferings, actions and choices are “in your book” (v. 8) is one of the earliest mentions of The Book of Life (Ps. 69:28; Mal. 3:16; Phil. 4:3; Rev. 3:5 and more), a symbol for God’s attention to us, his omniscience and his justice.