Judging by a simple word count, Jeremiah is the longest book of the Old Testament (even though it has fewer chapters than Isaiah and Psalms). Jeremiah was active in his prophetic ministry against Jerusalem even as Jerusalem was crumbling under the attacks of the Babylonians, which eventually led to the nation of Judah going into exile in 586 BC. As you can guess, Jeremiah was mainly a prophet of doom: he proclaimed that God was judging Judah for its idolatry and failure to be faithful to Yahweh.
As with Isaiah and many other books of the Old Testament, the prophet himself did not author the book, even though it captures something of the life and times of the prophet. Many scholars agree that Jeremiah was edited by the same group that was responsible for the “Deuteronomistic History” (the books of Joshua through 2 Kings, which reflect the teachings of the book of Deuteronomy). The reason that many scholars make this conclusion is that Jeremiah and the Deuteronomistic History share many of the same themes and vocabulary. Like many other Old Testament books, Jeremiah as we know it came into existence after a period of reflection and editing on the part of the Israelites.
Readers may learn something of Jeremiah’s life by some autobiographical accounts in the book (or, as most scholars argue, biographical accounts put into Jeremiah’s mouth). These accounts are not there simply to give us information about Jeremiah, however. Rather, they are details given in order to recount the terror that many felt over Jerusalem’s destruction. In short, the biographical details of Jeremiah’s life should be taken as symbolic language. For example, the idolatrous people will be as useless as a linen belt that had been buried in the ground for many days (chapter 13), Jeremiah remained unmarried and childless because of the impending disaster (chapter 16), he bought and broke a jug to symbolize the destruction of Jerusalem (chapter 19), he wore a yoke to symbolize that Jerusalem and the surrounding nations would come under Babylon’s thumb (chapter 27-28) and, finally, he bought a field in Anathoth to symbolize Jerusalem’s “purchase” at the hands of the Babylonians.
An important passage found early on in the book of Jeremiah—Jeremiah 7:1-8:3—sets the tone for his message that permeates the book. It is at this point that Jeremiah chides the people of Jerusalem for thinking that God will spare them for the sake of God’s temple. Jeremiah makes it clear, however, that the temple will not act as a charm against invasion. Instead, the temple has become a “den of robbers” (7:11), a verse also found on Jesus’ lips in the Gospels. Indeed, instead of safety, God promises that the people of Judah will be lead to the “Valley of Ben Hinnom” where they will be burned. In light of this, God renames it the “Valley of Slaughter.” This was an actual location outside of Jerusalem, a burning trash dump, which symbolized God’s judgment of God’s people. This is also the likely background for the concept of hell in the New Testament.
All of this is to say that Jeremiah spoke boldly of Jerusalem’s deserved punishment rather than the false hope of its indestructibility. Also, Jeremiah spoke explicitly of Judah’s seventy-year captivity. Judah was only captive for about fifty years (586-539 BC), but Jeremiah’s number is symbolic. It either refers to a number of fullness or completion, or it reflects the period for 586, when the temple was razed, to 516, when it was rebuilt. If the latter is correct, theologically speaking, Judah will never really back in the land until the temple is standing again, even though they returned physically in 539 BC.
The book of Jeremiah does not follow chronological order, but is grouped by topic as follows. After his call by God in chapter 1, chapters 2-35 are a series of warnings and exhortation to Judah about the coming judgment at the hand of the Babylonians. Chapters 36-38 recount Jeremiah’s own struggles and imprisonment. Chapters 39-45 recount the fall of Jerusalem and the migration to Egypt. Chapters 46-51 are judgments against the nations, culminating in judgment against Babylon. Chapter 52 is a historical appendix, parallel to 2 Kings 25:27-30, which recounts the fall of Jerusalem and ends with Judah’s puppet kin Jehoiachin being given a daily allowance by the Babylonian king Evil-Merodach (man of the god Marduk).
– Peter Enns