As you read Jeremiah, you should do what the lesson materials for Isaiah suggested: ask how those to whom Jeremiah was speaking would have understood his prophecies, how those in the Book of Mormon (who had a record of part of his prophecies with them) would have understood them, how the members of the Church in New Testament times would have understood them, how we can understand them today, and how they may teach us of things yet to come. Looking at each prophecy from these perspectives may help us see things we otherwise would have overlooked or understand better why some things are opaque to us.
As you read, also think about Jeremiah’s situation. We know that he was reluctant to serve as a prophet. (See Jeremiah 1:6-8 and 17.) He probably knew Lehi, and it isn’t difficult to imagine him wondering “Why me? I’ve been called to remain unmarried and without children, and to be persecuted for prophesying, whereas Lehi has been called to prophecy and then, after relatively brief persecution, to take his family with him to a promised land. That doesn’t seem fair.” Whether Jeremiah wondered something like that or not, what was his response to his call? See Jeremiah 1:18: “I have made thee a defenced city, an iron pillar, and brasen walls [i.e., walls of brass] against the whole land.” What does this image suggest about what Jeremiah can expect his relation with Judah to be like? What particulars of Jeremiah’s biography bear out this image? (Read about Jeremiah in your Bible Dictionary.) How does the Lord strengthen him for his task?
Because of Jeremiah’s personal sufferings and because of the horrific nature of Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem and her defeat, we often focus on the woes that he pronounces. In fact his name has become a word we use for any lamenting and denunciatory complaint: a jeremiad. But if we are to understand Jeremiah’s prophetic message, it is crucial to remember that he does not only prophesy woe; he also prophecies restoration. Of course, the story of woe and restoration is the story that the scriptures tell over and over again, in a very real sense the only story they tell: though Israel was blessed and in covenant with God, it gave up its blessing and renounced its covenant, falling into sin and error; because of that, woe will come; nevertheless, there will be a restoration of the blessings and the covenant—Israel will return to her former state of grace. That story is the story of every individual human being as well as the story of Israel.
Verses 1-4: The family lives of other prophets have also been used symbolically, sometimes in ways that we find shocking (Genesis 22; Hosea 1-3; Isaiah 7-8; Ezekiel 24:15-27). What did failure to have children mean in ancient Israel? Does the Lord’s use of the prophets in this way teach us anything about how he teaches? Not marrying was so unusual in Israel that ancient Hebrew had no word for bachelor. Why, specifically, does the Lord command Jeremiah not to marry? What might that have meant symbolically?
Verses 5-7: Why shouldn’t Jeremiah mourn for Judah or join in their mourning?
Verses 8-9: Why shouldn’t he join in their rejoicing at the wedding feasts?
Verse 10: How will the people of Judah respond to these signs and prophecies?
Verses 11-13: What does it mean to forsake the Lord? Does that add to the meaning of these verses? Why is exile thought by the Jews to be a harsh punishment? My family is originally from Missouri and we have been “exiled” in Utah, but we don’t mind that and have no plans to return. Though we love our family there, we have homes and family here, and with each generation the connection to Missouri is weaker and weaker. I doubt that my children have anything but a kind of theoretical connection to Missouri: “My father / grandfather was born in Missouri.” Having living their whole lives here, the connection the feel is to Utah. I would bet that is what happens with most exiles, connection to the “home country” becomes very quickly attenuated. So why was the threat of exile in Babylon, where those exiled appear to have prospered and lived reasonably well, a serious threat? To Judah and Israel, what does the promise of a homeland signify? What meaning does that have for us? In other words, how can we understand the homeland literally? How symbolically? We have had our own ideas about a homeland, first Missouri and then Utah. How did the Church make the change from understanding the homeland—the gathering place—as literal (Missouri or Utah) to understanding it as symbolic (the stakes of Zion, wherever they are)?
“The Lord liveth,” which occurs two times in these verses, should probably be translated “as the Lord liveth.” This was a phrase used at the beginning of oaths. What is the significance of the Lord making this prophecy in terms of an oath?
Before this, what has been the sign that the Lord watches over Israel? Now what will be the sign? Does this sign describe the events at any other time periods than the return from Babylon? For example, does it describe events at the time of Christ? At the time of the latter-day Restoration? Is there any sense in which might we say that we have been brought back into the land that the Lord gave to our fathers, particularly if we live outside of the “Mormon corridor”?
Verses 16-18: What did the image of fishers and hunters mean to Judah at the time of Jeremiah? (The fisherman images appears to have been a well-known metaphor. Compare Ezekial 12:13; 29:4-5; Amos 4:2; Habakkuk 1:14-17.) Who are being hunted and fished? Who will do that hunting and fishing? Does this image have meaning for us today? Notice the order of ideas in these verses: “I will hunt them out because they cannot hide from me and because I know their iniquity.” What point is the Lord making? How does that point help us understand the fishing and hunting of verse 16? Why do you think that the sin the Lord singles out for mention in these verses is the profanation of the temple with sacrifices to other gods? How is that sin related to the sin of forsaking the Lord (verse 11), and how are the profanation of the temple and forsaking the Lord related to the sins of injustice among neighbors and the oppression of the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, as well as to idolatry (Jeremiah 7:5-7)? Do we ever profane the temple today? How is our profanation of the temple related to injustice? To oppression of the stranger, the orphan, and the widow? Are we ever guilty of idolatry?
Verses 19-21: What promise does the Lord make in these verses? To whom is the promise made? How is that promise relevant to what was prophesied in verses 16-19? How does the promise of these verses relate to us in the latter-days?
Verses 1-9: What is the job of a shepherd? What do these shepherds do? These shepherds were probably the kings of Judah. What were they doing to scatter their people? Who are our shepherds? What might one of them do to scatter the flock? What promise for the future is held out for God’s people? Who will eventually bring them back to their own homes? Who is the “righteous Branch”? To whom to you think those who heard Jeremiah prophesy would have understood him to refer? Why refer to this person as a branch? A branch of what?
The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew lexicon gives the first meaning of the Hebrew word translated branch as “sprout, growth.” The third meaning is “future ruler, under fig. of sprout from David tree.”
What does Jeremiah mean when he talks of the return of judgment and justice? How are the two related? In what way is the gathering of Israel in the last days akin to the deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt? How different?
Verses 9-40: In reading these verses, remember that Jerusalem was full of self-appointed prophets who opposed Jeremiah. How are Jeremiah’s times like Christ’s in this respect—though we have no evidence that Jerusalem was filled with self-appointed prophets during Jesus’ life? Are there false prophets today? Where do we find them? How do Jeremiah and the Lord describe these prophets and priests? What makes someone a false prophet? (Remember that the primary duty of a prophet is to preach the gospel, not to foretell the future.) Why the reference to Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdoms? In what way is the reference to Sodom and Gomorrah applicable? Why would the false prophets’ message of peace have been confusing to people such as Laman and Lemuel?
Verses 1-3: Jeremiah writes a letter to the Jews already in Babylon, those deported in 597 B.C. (The final deportation will occur in 586.) Why are they described as “the residue”? In other words, why would those who have been deported be the residue rather than those who remained behind?
According to Brown-Driver-Briggs, the word translated residue means “remainder,” but it also means “excess” (as in Jeremiah 27:19; 39:9; and 52:15) as well as “pre-eminence” (as in Genesis 49:3).
Verses 4-7: What is the substance of Jeremiah’s letter? Why did the Lord give this commandment rather than a commandment to rebel and escape? How does Jeremiah’s instruction compare to the 12th Article of Faith? Are there any important differences?
Verses 10-14: Note that “seventy years” probably isn’t intended to denote a specific period of time. More likely it means “a long, indefinite time.” What does the Lord promise them at the end of that time? (In verse 11, “expected end” is probably better translated “hopeful future.”) On what condition will the promise be fulfilled? What does it mean to seek the Lord with all one’s heart? What indication do we have in these verses that this promise refers to more than just a return from Babylon?
Verses 8-9, 15-32: Note that the false prophets had also arisen in Babylon. What does the Lord decree for them? Note the reference to their being burned in a fiery furnace. What had they been doing wrong in Babylon? Notice that some the false prophets such as Shemaiah vilify Jeremiah even after they have been taken captive into Babylon. Why might they do so?
This chapter consists of an introduction, verse 1, and four poems: verses 2-6, 7-14, 15-22, and 35-37.
Verse 1: Of what time is the Lord speaking here? Is it significant that he speaks of being the God of all the families of Israel rather than all the individuals of Israel? If so, how?
Verses 2-6: What does the Lord promise for the future of Israel? Of what is the wilderness or desert a symbol in verse 2? What does he mean by the term “everlasting love” (verse 3)? In what sense is his love everlasting? Why is it everlasting? In what has the Lord shown his love for Israel?
The word lovingkindness in verse 3 translates the Hebrew word hesed, “goodness, kindness.” With the word love (hb), hesed is a word used in covenants.
Usually watchmen keep intruders and thieves out. What do these watchmen do (verse 6)?
Verses 7-14: In Israel’s history, where have we previously seen this event? When will those taken into Babylon see it? What does it mean to us? In verse 8, why does the Lord emphasize the return of those who are physically disadvantaged? How will this journey in the wilderness differ from the earlier one (verse 9)? Why are the islands of the sea and distant nations called as witnesses (verse 10)? Compare and contrast the scene of this poem to that of Jeremiah 6:26, and 16:1-9. What do you learn?
Verses 15-22: Ramah (verse 15) was the home of Samuel and near the burial place of Rachel. (Compare Genesis 35:18-19.) Jeremiah 40:1 tells us that Ramah was a stopping off place for those on their way from Jerusalem to exile in Babylon. How is it relevant to this poetic prophecy? How did Matthew use this verse from Jeremiah (Matthew 2:18)? What does that tell us about ancient biblical interpretation? Does it suggest anything about how biblical writers understood what they were doing? Compare verse 18 to Hosea 4:16 and 10:11. What does that comparison reveal? What does Jeremiah mean by comparing Ephraim to a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke (verse 18)? Keep in mind that the bull (or calf) is sometimes used as the symbol of Ephraim—for example, in the construction of the golden calf by the northern tribes after their break from Jerusalem. What is the yoke in the analogy? How does the Lord feel about the tribe of Ephraim? Is this one of the reasons that only Joseph and his two sons Ephraim and Manasseh will be given a home in the New Jerusalem, while all the other tribes will be headquartered in Jerusalem? In verse 22, perhaps the word “compass” should, instead, be translated “protect.”
Verses 23-40: What blessing does verses 23-25 describe? Recall that Jeremiah’s call (Jeremiah 1:19) was two-fold: to pull down and to build. Where have you seen him doing this? What does Jeremiah mean when he says “the fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (verse 29)? How are the sins of the fathers visited upon the children? Why does the Lord change this (verse 30)? What does the Lord mean by a new covenant (verse 31—note that the covenant will be made with both north and south, in other words, all of the house of Israel)?
To make a covenant in the Old Testament is literally to cut a covenant. Why? How might that be relevant?
How is this covenant different from the first covenant? What does the Lord mean when he says that the covenant will be a “law in their inward parts” and “in their hearts” (verse 31)? What will happen to proselytizing in that day (verse 34)? Why? What might he mean by the term “know” (verse 34) in this context? Does it mean simply an awareness of? This is the same word used in Genesis 4:1. Does that suggest anything about what it means to know the Lord? (Compare Hosea 8:1-2.) How is the event described in verse 34 related to the prophecy of verse 33? The word “ordinances” could also be translated “order” (verse 35). What does verses 35-36 mean? How is what it means relevant to what the Lord has been saying previously in this poem? What is the point of verse 37? Verses 38-40 are an apocalyptic vision of the sanctification of Jerusalem. The places mentioned seem to be ones surrounding Jerusalem, recited in a clockwise direction if we are looking at a map. However, not all of them are identifiable.
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