Like Moses he is a reluctant messenger. In Jeremiah 1:4-8, the Lord appears to him and announces that “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” But Jeremiah replies: “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” So God insists, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’ for to all to whom I send you you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.”
In this way we know of the prophet’s authority. It is not his own.
Jeremiah was from the southern and longer lasting kingdom, Judah. His ministry took place in the late 7th century and early 6th century before our era, from the reign of King Josiah (640-609, through kings Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin (598-597) and finally Zedekiah (597-586), the last king before the neo-Babylonian Empire overran Judah and completed the defeat and exile of the people of Israel.
Throughout most of this period Judah sat uneasily surrounded by three empires the Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptian, vying for control of the fertile crescent, an area of fertile land around huge desertic areas of the Middle East, starting in the west from the Mesopotamia in today’s Iraq and Kuwait, arching north to Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus, then south to Jordan, Israel and Egypt. In this unstable geopolitical setting, the little kingdom of Judah attempted to preserve its independence.
From the biblical perspective, independence means freedom from the forced or subtly absorbed worship of their neighbors’ gods, allegiance to whom is repeatedly called “idolatry. As we have seen, the Hebrews have been told already: they are to have one Lord, YHVH (variously rendered as Jehovah or Yahweh).
And what does the prophet have to say on God’s behalf of what he sees?
First he is told to remind Israel of “her” faithfulness as God’s “bride.” The notion of Israel’s relationship to God as a marriage runs through all the prophets. This will have consequences after Christ, but let’s not get too far ahead of the story. Second, he decries the behavior of the Chosen People as that of a “harlot” or whore. Third, he calls to repentance, to abandoning of the “unfaithfulness” of idolatry. He concludes warning that, as we would put it, there will be hell to pay for Judah’s misbehavior.
Note that by this time the northern kingdom, the one that called itself Israel and adopted the idolatrous Baal worship, has fallen to the Assyrians. In Jeremiah we see constant contentious dialogues between God and his prophet on one side, and the kings and their priests on the other. In these arguments, the kings’ party makes repeated disparaging comparisons between the purportedly more faithful Judah and the harlotry of Israel. They fail the test when Judah’s own faults, such as allying with the idolatrous Egyptians, which will cause the final fall.
Here, as he tells of God’s wrath “Be warned, O Jerusalem,” are some of Jeremiah’s words in chapter 6
For from the least to the greatest of them, every one is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, every one deals falsely. They have healed the wound of [the Lord’s] people lightly, saying, ’Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown.Who cannot look at one’s own country, one’s own land and one’s own people and in some sense not feel the finger of the prophet? This is Jeremiah’s powerful, almost ranting style gives rise to the word “jeremiad.”
For his troubles he is persecuted, ultimately imprisoned and freed when the Babylonian army pours into Jerusalem in 586 BCE and he is freed by express order of Nebuchadnezzar.