In view of the attribution to the prophet Jeremiah of so much of its material and because the rest is about his experience and activity, there is no mystery about the name of the book. Some doubts have been expressed about the historical accuracy of this information—see below—but wholesale scepticism about the link between the book and the prophet is not justified.
Much of the early part of the book (chapters 1–25) records utterances ascribed to the prophet. Much of the later part describes Jeremiah’s experiences and imprisonment in the period between the accession of Jehoiakim king of Judah in 609 BCE and the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 BCE, and indeed afterwards. In the present form of the book distinct sections are discernible, notably “oracles against the nations” (25:14-51; chapters 49–51). A striking passage at the heart of the book, often called the “Book of Consolation” (chapters 30–31) expresses hopes for a return from exile and a new covenant.
Date and authorship
While the book bears clear evidence of its roots in the life and times of the prophet, most modern scholars believe that it has undergone a lengthy and complex process of reshaping over many years, a development still in progress as late as the Greek translation in the 3rd century BCE, which, however, bears witness to a different and possibly earlier basic underlying Hebrew text. The influential German scholar Bernhard Duhm (1901) described Jeremiah as a book which grew as an unattended wood grows and spreads. Similarly William McKane (1986) uses the words “rolling corpus” to describe the process by which the book grew. Robert P. Carroll (1986) described the relationship between the prophet and the figure in the book as comparable with that between Amled the Dane and Hamlet as depicted in Shakespeare’s play. But Carroll’s position is generally regarded as too sceptical. A firm basis of historical truth may be seen in the portrait of Jeremiah as a prophet who foretold and experienced the destruction of Jerusalem and advocated co-operation with the victorious Babylonian authorities.
The book as a whole explores the catastrophic effects of the nation’s unfaithfulness to its covenant obligations. However, many questions of interpretation are affected by conclusions drawn about the date and composition of Jeremiah. Some are left unresolved because of conflicts between the thrust of the message in one part of the book and another. A notable feature is the series of poems between chapters 11 and 20 in which Jeremiah complains about the effects of his prophetic ministry on himself, and accuses God of exploiting and deceiving him.
A most important question is whether there would be a future for a restored Davidic monarchy. A partial fulfilment of such a hope took place with the return from exile and rebuilding of the temple, but from a Christian point of view there was a finality about the disaster, which was not to be reversed until the coming of Christ, in whom David’s successor is presented as a complete metamorphosis.
From earliest times, the book was regarded without question as a product of the prophet’s times, as was also the book of Lamentations, with particular relevance to periods of great struggle or stress. For the Jews, Jeremiah became the model of the suffering prophet. An interesting insight into the way Jeremiah was read can be seen in the citation of Jeremiah 31:15 with reference to Herod’s “massacre of the innocents” in Matthew 2:18. Coloured by the traditional ascription to Jeremiah of Lamentations, this passage contributed to the depiction of the prophet in art and literature as a sad and mournful figure, which does only partial justice to his presentation in the book. Of crucial importance for Christian interpretation is the substantial explanation of the “new covenant” passage (Jeremiah 31:31-34) in Hebrews 9 as a prophecy of Christ’s achievement through his death and resurrection.
Carroll, Robert P. Jeremiah. Old Testament Library. London: SCM Press, 1986.
Clements, R. E. Jeremiah. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta: John Knox, 1988.
Holladay, William H. Jeremiah. 2 vols. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989.
Jones, Douglas Rawlinson. Jeremiah. New Century Bible. London: Marshall Pickering, 1992.
McConville, J. G. Judgement and Promise: An interpretation of the Book of Jeremiah. Leicester: Apollos, 1993.