One of the functions of the book of Jeremiah is to fill in the gaps, providing depth to the high-level story recorded in the books of Kings. For example, very little is recorded in 2 Kings about the first eighteen years of Josiah’s reign, except that he was placed on the throne at the age of eight, and that his grandfather Manasseh and father Amon had led Judah into profound wickedness.
In the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign the king will commission a restoration of Solomon’s Temple, during which the book of the law is rediscovered, and reforms are instituted. Jeremiah’s ministry begins five years before this, and the picture he presents in the opening chapters is desolate.
Remember how knowledge is distributed when reading Jeremiah. In the opening paragraph of the book you’re told that Jeremiah ministered through five kings, until the captivity of Jerusalem. This means that the author – and you – knows about the sweeps Babylon made in 603 and 598, and the final destruction of Jerusalem in 586. Jeremiah, forty years before this, was told by the LORD that out of the north disaster shall be let loose upon all the inhabitants of the land.
Keeping this straight is critical to reading the prophets. You know the end of the story; the characters don’t. The prophet stands between, often knowing where history is headed but not knowing how it will unfold. The king and advisers in 626 don’t know that in 40 years it will all be over; neither do the people of the land, many of whom will lose everything within a generation. They’re allowed to live, to hope, to respond to the LORD or to reject Him within these pages. Patience will allow the story to unfold as the author masterfully intends.
Jeremiah’s mission is to accurately proclaim the word of the LORD; his mission also entails calling the nation to repentance even when he is virtually certain this will go unheeded, even while he knows judgment is marshalling its forces. Chapter 4 opens with a hopeful if/then proposition: “If you return,” and “if you remove your detestable things from My presence…” and if you swear ‘As the LORD lives,’ in truth, in justice, and in righteousness, then nations shall bless themselves in him, and in him shall they glory.
And what does returning look like? While Judah may have maintained the covenant outwardly, the LORD demands that they circumcise their hearts… lest my wrath go forth like fire… Wicked men are found among my people; they know no bounds in deeds of evil; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless… and they do not defend the rights of the needy. Shall I not punish them for these things?
Our verse for this week is Lamentations 3:22-23: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
Jeremiah 4 through 6. Now let’s read it!
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.