The Book of Jeremiah From a Jewish Perspective

To Cesar, a good friend and faithful servant to the Word of God.
The glue behind the scenes.

The exodus and the exile of the southern kingdom of Judah are, in one respect, the twin poles around which the TaNaKh revolves. The exodus and the exile are frequent themes in the prophetic writings. In the exodus the people were freed from slavery; in the exile they became enslaved once again. There is something symbolic about the fact that one of the last acts of the people of Judah in Tziyon was to re-enslave the slaves that they had freed just prior to the destruction of their City (34:11).

Jeremiah (Hebrew: Yirmeyahu) was the primary prophet of Judah during the dark days leading to her destruction. Though the light of other prophets, such as Habakkuk and Zephaniah, flickered in Judah at the time, Jeremiah was the blazing torch that, along with Ezekiel in Babylon, exposed the darkness of Judah’s sin with the piercing brightness of God’s Word. He was a weeping prophet to a wayward people.1

The Use of the New International Version

Because I am writing this commentary on Jeremiah from a Jewish perspective, I will be using the New International Version unless otherwise indicated. There will be times when I substitute Hebrew for English names using the Complete Jewish Bible by David Stern. But generally I will be using the NIV translation for the Jewish perspective.

The use of ADONAI

Long before Yeshua’s day, the word ADONAI had, out of respect, been substituted in speaking and in reading aloud for God’s personal name, the four Hebrew letters yud-heh-vav-heh, variously written in English as YHVH. The Talmud (Pesachim 50a) made it a requirement not to pronounce Tetragrammaton, meaning the four-letter name of God, and this remains the rule in most modern Jewish settings. In deference to this tradition, which is unnecessary but harmless, I will usually be using ADONAI where YHVH is meant.2 In ancient times when the scribes were translating the Hebrew Scriptures, they revered the name of YHVH so much that they would use a quill to make one stroke of the name and then throw it away. Then they would make another stroke and throw that quill away until the name was completed. His name became so sacred to them that they started to substitute the phrase the Name, instead of writing or pronouncing His Name.

Over centuries of doing this, the actual letters and pronunciation of His Name have been lost. Today, the name of G-d is treated with honor and respect. In the Jewish tradition, in order to show respect, the name of the L-rd or G-d is written without the vowel. The idea is that if a document with His Name on it is destroyed or deleted, His Name will be spared because it was not written out fully. As a result, today the closest we can come to the original is YHVH, with no vowels. The pronunciation has been totally lost. Therefore, the names Yahweh or Jehovah are only guesses of what the original name actually sounded like. Both ADONAI and Ha’Shem are substitute names for YHVH. ADONAI is more of an affectionate name like daddy, while Ha’Shem is a more formal name like sir. Therefore, God does not have many names, He has only one name – YHVH (Yud Hay Vav Hay). All the other names in the Bible describe His characteristics and His attributes. Hear, O Isra'el! ADONAI our God, ADONAI is One (Deuteronomy 6:4). The Jewish tradition, then, forbids the pronunciation of the Divine Name, and many choose to use ADONAI in its place.

The use of TaNaKh

The Hebrew word TaNaKh is an acronym, based on the letters T (for "Torah"), N (for "Nevi’im," or the Prophets), and K (for "Ketuv’im," or the Sacred Writings). It is the collection of the teachings of God to human beings in document form. The term “Old Covenant” implies that it is no longer valid, or at the very least outdated. Something old, to be either ignored or discarded. But Jesus Himself said: Don’t think I have come to abolish the Torah and the Prophets, I have not come to abolish but to complete (Matthew 5:17 CJB). I will be using the Hebrew acronym TaNaKh instead of the phrase, the Old Testament throughout this devotional commentary.

The Use of the Terms Judah and Isra’el

Jeremiah does not use these terms consistently because by this time the northern kingdom of Isra’el had gone into captivity in 722 BC. Sometimes he uses the terms interchangeably and sometimes he uses them distinctly. There is no pattern.

Jeremiah the Man

We receive a greater glimpse into the life of Jeremiah than we do any other prophet. The book contains quite a bit of biographical material. This is unusual for the writing prophets. Only Jonah contains biographical material. God told him he was not to marry, and his obedience was amazing because if anyone ever needed a wife it was Yirmeyahu. He was very introspective and a lonely man. He could have profited by the companionship of a wife. But it wasn’t his choice. Unlike some of the other prophets, he tells us how he feels and his internal spiritual struggles.

Yirmeyahu was a very emotional man, at least when he was writing. His writing style is flexible, very lyrical. It is a very strong and powerful style, but at the same time there is a certain delicacy about it. Jeremiah is very bold in terms of style and content. The book as a whole has a certain majestic beauty about it.

Jeremiah lived in a period of storm and stress. He is the most pathetic prophet in the Bible. He was a prophet of doom against himself. Yirmeyahu knew that there was no chance that the kingdom of Judah was going to repent. And yet, he had to keep prophesying. There was nothing he could do to avoid the catastrophe he knew was coming. Amid the brightest stars of the TaNaKh there is not a name that shines brighter than that of Yirmeyahu.

The Authorship and Date

The author of the book is Jeremiah son of Hilkiah (1:1). His ministry extended from the thirteen years of the reign of Josiah (1:2) until the Judeans captured him and took him to Egypt. As a result, he prophesied from 627 BC to probably at least 582 BC.

Jeremiah in the Scriptures

Jeremiah occurs in Second Chronicles 36:21, Matthew 2:17 (quotes from Jeremiah 31:15), Matthew 16:14 (a man of sorrows), and Matthew 27:9 (potters field). There are 41 direct quotations or references in the New Testament, 26 of them in Revelation.

Key word: shuwb

The key word in Jeremiah is shuwb, meaning to repent (from evil), to return, or to turn back (to something or someone good). This is a significant Hebrew verb and embodies the essence of Yirmeyahu’s message. This verb occurs 1,059 times in the TaNaKh and some 48 times in Jeremiah alone. No other book has this concentration of that verb. I will be inserting the word (shuwb) in the text when it is used. Sometimes there will be a word like faithless or apostasy where the Hebrew word is actually mshuwabh, a feminine noun that actually comes from shuwb, when it is used I will insert (from shuwb).

The Theology of Jeremiah

There are a number of theological issues that the priest from Anathoth deals with: (1) the word of ADONAI is indestructible. There are two ways that people will try to destroy it: by changing the wording or by changing the meaning to fit what they already believe (Second Timothy 4:3); (2) God is sovereign; (3) the LORD is both omniscient (all knowing) and omnipresent (present everywhere at the same time). He is well aware of Judah’s sins, both public and private; (4) Elohim demands obedience. No obedience, no blessing – only judgment; (5) messianic prophecies, the God-Man concept; (6) the sinfulness of mankind; (7) that Judah and Isra’el will be punished because of specific disobedience to the Torah; (8) Yirmeyahu announces the coming of the New Covenant (31-31-34) that will displace the Mosaic Covenant, which will lead to Isra’el’s final restoration; (9) eschatology – Jeremiah does not mention the Second Coming as such, but he does mention the restoration and reestablishment of the throne of David, the messianic Kingdom and the Great Tribulation.

The Use of Different Terms for the People of God

Yisra’el is but one of several terms used to signify the people of God. It is used several times (31:1-2, 4, 10, 21, 23, 27, 31, 36-37) as are the terms virgin (31:4,21), Judah (31:23, 27, 31), Jacob (31:7-11), Ephraim (31:6, 18, 20) and Rachel (31:15). Zion (31:6, 12 and Chapters 38-40) and even Samaria (31:5) are also employed to refer to the people in their various political and geographical forms.3 There is no pattern.

The Debt of Jeremiah to Hosea

A succession of commentators over the years has recognized the close relationship between Jeremiah and Hosea. The resemblance between the two prophets appears not only in the use of language and figures but extends to fundamental ideas on ADONAI and His relationship with Isra’el. We may speculate how this came about. Hosea was a prophet of the northern kingdom of Isra’el. Anathoth, the birthplace of Yirmeyahu, lay north of Tziyon and not very from the southern border of Isra’el. Moreover, Jeremiah’s family was probably descended from Eli, the priest of Shiloh. So there were both family and geographical links to the north, and Hosea, a shining example of the North Israelite piety, may well have played a significant role in his early development and training. Either Jeremiah’s father or some godly teachers conveyed to Yirmeyahu the great traditions of Israel’s faith and her unique relationship to YHVH in the covenant, her election, and the profound obligation laid on her as a result of this. That tradition shines through the prophets’ preaching.

One of Hosea’s great words was hesed, meaning loyalty or faithfulness. It was the LORD’s complaint against Yisra’el that there was no faithfulness (hesed) in the land (Hosea 4:1). He desired steadfast love (hesed) more than sacrifice (Hosea 6:6), but sadly, Israel’s love (hesed) was like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears (Hosea 6:4). She needed to sow righteousness and reap the fruit of unfailing love (Hosea 10:12) and maintain love and justice (Hosea 12:6). In the far eschatological future Isra’el would be His bride again in faithfulness (hesed) (Hos 2:21). Yirmeyahu had spoken of the happy days when Isra’el first followed ADONAI into the wilderness, through a land not sown, recalling the devotion (hesed) of her youth, and her love for Him as a bride (Jer 2:2).

Jeremiah used the metaphor of a son for Isra’el. It was in the mind of God to treat Isra’el as a son and having redeemed him from Egypt to give him a pleasant land and a beautiful heritage. This figure has a parallel in Hosea 11:1. When Isra’el was a child (na’ar) YHVH loved him, called him from Egypt, and nurtured him despite his rebellious ways. Jeremiah’s development of the theme is essentially the same. God hoped that Isra’el would call Him, “My Father,” but a faithless wife deserts her husband so Isra’el proved faithless. Yirmeyahu combined the metaphors of a son and a wife in Jer 3:19-20.

Another idea that Yirmeyahu held in common with Hosea was the knowledge of God (Hebrew: da’at Elohim) in the Land (Hosea 4:1), and it was ADONAI’s people were destroyed because of their lack of knowledge (Hosea 4:6). Jeremiah likewise complained on God’s behalf: Those who deal with the Torah did not know (Hebrew: yada) Me (Jer 2:8 CJB). Again: My people are foolish – they do not know Me, they are stupid children without understanding (Jer 4:22 CJB). To know YHVH was to be committed to Him with a profound personal commitment that totally touched the person’s life. In the days of the New Covenant all will know Me from the least to the greatest (Jer 31:34). Hosea likewise envisioned a day in the far eschatological future when the LORD would be betrothed to His people, returning to the days’ of courtship . . . and in faithfulness they would know Him (Hosea 2:20).

The picture of Ha’Shem’s lawsuit (Hebrew verb: rub) against Isra’el appears in Hosea 4:1-3. The covenant lawsuit is a well-known feature in the TaNaKh. Hosea pictured Isra’el as being called upon to answer ADONAI in the matter of certain failures on her part to shoe knowledge of God (da’at Elohim). Jeremiah also uses the term (rub) in a slightly different sense. The LORD had a lawsuit (rub) against the nations (Jeremiah 25:31). The priest from Anathoth was under great pressure from his foes (Yirmeyahu 11:20, 20:12, 50:34, 51:36) because the prophet was committed to God’s cause (rub). Even if the word lawsuit was not used it was clear that Yirmeyahu was laying a charge against Isra’el throughout his ministry (Jeremiah 15:10), and issuing a threat of judgment against them in which the land itself would share (Hosea 4:1-3). Hosea specifically spoke against YHVH’s lawsuit (sub) against the priests (Hosea 4:4-10). Jeremiah also had strong things to say against the priests (Yirmeyahu 2:8 and 26-27, 4:9, 5:31, 13:13, and so on).

Both Hosea and Jeremiah express wonderment that Isra’el could have turned (shuwb) her back on YHVH in the face of all He had done for them. According to Hosea, no sooner had Isra’el reached the Promised Land, the home ADONAI had prepared for His bride, and there discovered that love meant loyalty, than she rebelled (Hosea 2:5-8, 9:10). Not that it surprised Him, but God had to face the disheartening fact that the love of His people would last no longer than the morning mist (Hosea 6:4). Yirmeyahu took up the same question but took it one step further. To him, Isra'el’s disloyalty required an explanation, and all the more so because the Gentiles to the west and to the east were not guilty of changing loyalty to their gods as Isra’el had done. Judah had substituted a helpless idol in the place of her God (Jeremiah 2:10-22). The remarkable thing was that the goyim really weren’t losing anything because their idols were already powerless. But Yisra’el had forsaken the LORD, a spring of running water, for dry cisterns that could not hold water (Yirmeyahu 2:12-13).

Both Yirmeyahu and Hosea idealized the wilderness period as a time when Isra’el’s faith was uncontaminated by the corrupting influence of the Canaanite worship of Ba’al (Jeremiah 2:1-3; Hosea 11:1). But her fall was staggering. Such apostasy devastated the very foundations of family morality (Hosea 4:4). Both prophets emphasized the relationship between the inherent sensuousness of this false worship and the ethical motives of love, trust, and gratitude that a true relationship with God demanded and produced. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served the created thing rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25; Jeremiah 2:5, 11 and 13; Hosea 9:10).

Both Hosea and Jeremiah struck a strong note of repentance. Three passages in Jeremiah, 3:22-25, 14:7-10 and 14:19-22, represent “confession of sin” of the type Yirmeyahu believed the people should make. Isra’el is pictured as confessing to YHVH; that their wickedness testified against them and that ADONAI alone was her hope and savior in a time of trouble; and asking why Ha’Shem had rejected them. They acknowledged their sins and asked Him not to break His covenant with them. Such confessions remind us of Hosea 6:1-3 and 14:2-3 where Isra’el is pictured as saying: Come, let us return to God, confessing that Assyria would not save us, and asking God to take away their iniquity.4

Seven Complaints

More than any other prophet of the TaNaKh Yirmeyahu saw his relationship with ADONAI to be a problem to be grappled with, more than simply an obligation to be taken for granted. There had been other prophets who spoke for God, great ones, in past times – Elijah and Amos, Hosea and Micah and Isaiah. But one finds, in reading through the pages that record their words and deeds, that once they became convinced that the LORD was calling them to speak, they spoke, and that was that; so far as our record goes, no question crossed their minds regarding the nature of their calling.

Jeremiah, however, while he went ahead and spoke, nonetheless hesitated before accepting the task and continued to question and complain about the way YHVH was treating him. The term complaint is maybe not the ideal one since the passages consist of prayers, laments, confessions, disputes and objections. In his capacity and willingness to dispute and doubt, he stands out from most of the people in the pages of the Bible; and this capacity and willingness brings him close to us. For while there are many people in our day who are willing to undertake a life of faith lived under Ha’Shem’s guidance and care, there are few who do not at some point question or complain about His ways . . . or wanted to.5

1. Ax – Oh, Adonai ELOHIM, Surely You Have Deceived This People

2. Bj – The Plot Against Jeremiah

3. Bk – Why Does the Way of the Wicked Prosper? Why Do All the Faithless Live at Ease?

4. Cm – Woe to Me, Mother, That You Gave Me Birth

5. Cs – Heal Me ADONAI, and I Will Be Healed, Save Me and I Will Be Saved

6. Cx – Jeremiah’s Response to a Threat Against His Life

7. Db – You Deceived Me, LORD, and I Have Been Deceived

Ten Symbolic Actions

Jeremiah made a good deal of use of the symbolic action. But there are examples in the TaNaKh of such symbolic actions before and after Yirmeyahu’s day. In the ninth century in the days of King Ahab a prophet Zedekiah ben Chenaanah made horns of iron for himself and declared to Ahab of Yisra’el and Jehoshaphat of Judah: With these [iron horns] you will gore the Arameans until they are destroyed (First Kings 22:11). In Elisha’s day, the prophet told Jehoash king of Isra’el to shoot arrows in the direction of Syria to symbolize Isra'el’s forthcoming victory over the Arameans (Second Kings 13:14-19).

In the eighth century BC, symbolic actions were associated with both Isaiah and Hosea. Thus, Isaiah went stripped and barefoot for three years, as a sign and warning against Egypt and Cush, so the king of Assyria will lead away stripped and barefoot the Egyptian captives and Cushite exiles, young and old, with buttocks bared – to Egypt’s shame (20:3-4). Even the naming of his children with symbolic names was a symbolic act (see the commentary on Isaiah Cf - The Sign of Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz).

Hosea’s marriage to Gomer was a symbolic enactment of the relationship of Isra’el to YHVH. Hosea the faithful husband symbolizes Ha’Shem, and Gomer the unfaithful wife symbolizes Yisra’el. The names of Hosea’s children are likewise symbolic of the judgment of ADONAI on Isra’el: Jezreel (God sows) indicated that the LORD would soon demand from the house of Jehu the blood of Jezreel and the massacre of the royal family (Second Kings 9-10); Lo Ruhamah (she who is not pitied) symbolized that God would have no pity on the house of Isra’el; and Lo ‘Ammi (not-My-people) symbolized YHVH’s rejection of His people.

Ezekiel also employed symbolic actions on several occasions. He sketched the siege of Jerusalem on a large mud brick (Ezekiel 4:1-2). He lay on his side like one paralyzed for a long period of time to symbolize the guilt of Judah and her punishment. The lack of provisions in Tziyon during the siege of Nebuchadnezzar was symbolized by Ezekiel taking only small quantities of bread and water (Ezekiel 4:9-11). And the life in exile was symbolized by his eating unclean food (Ezekiel 4:12-17). Ezekiel shaved off his hair and beard, then burned, smote and scattered it to the winds to symbolize the fate of the inhabitants of the City of David (Ezekiel 5:1-17). Ezekiel used other symbolic actions to symbolize the advance of the Babylonian army (Ezek 12:1-20), the distress of the people of the Holy City during the Babylonian siege (Ezekiel 21:19-23), the paralyzing grief of the Jews in Babylonia at the fall of Yerushalayim (Ezekiel 24:1-14), the second deportation of the people of Judah (Ezekiel 24:15-27), and the reunion of the two kingdoms into one in the far eschatological future (Ezekiel 37:15-28).6

When we come to Jeremiah specifically and find that he too performed ten symbolic actions, what might be called parables in action. It is clear that he was in a long tradition of making good use of these symbolic actions that carried on long after his death. As in the case with all parables it is wrong to search for meaning in every detail. This only leads the reader to allegorize the text that is a hindrance to sound biblical interpretation.

1. Co – You Must Not Marry and Have Sons and Daughters in This Place

2. Cw - At the Potter’s House

3. Cz – Judah is Like a Broken Jar

4. Dt – The Rechabites

5. Dx – A Linen Loincloth

6. Eq – Judah to Serve Nebuchadnezzar

7. Et – The False Prophet Hananiah

8. Fi – In This Same Way Babylon Will Sink, Never to Rise Again

9. Fs – Jeremiah Buys a Field

10. Gi - Nebuchadnezzar Will Burn Down the Temples of the gods of Egypt

 

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