1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Jeremiah

JEREMIAH, in the Bible, the last pre-exilic prophet (fl. 626–586 B.C. ?), son of Hilkiah.

Early Days of Jeremiah.—There must anciently have existed one or more prose works on Jeremiah and his times, written partly to do honour to the prophet, partly to propagate those views respecting Israel’s past with which the name of Jeremiah was associated. Some fragments of this work (or these works) have come down to us; they greatly add to the popularity of the Book of Jeremiah. Strict historical truth we must not ask of them, but they do give us what was believed concerning Jeremiah in the following age, and we must believe that the personality so honoured was an extraordinary one. We have also a number of genuine prophecies which admit us into Jeremiah’s inner nature. These are our best authorities, but they are deficient in concrete facts. By birth Jeremiah was a countryman; he came of a priestly family whose estate lay at Anathoth “in the land of Benjamin” (xxxii. 3; cf. i. 1). He came forward as a prophet in the thirteenth year of Josiah (626 B.C.), still young but irresistibly impelled. Unfortunately the account of the call and of the object of the divine caller come to us from a later hand (ch. i.), but we can well believe that the concrete fact which the prophetic call illuminated was an impending blow to the state (i. 13–16; cf. ch. iv.). What the blow exactly was is disputed,[1] but it is certain that Jeremiah saw the gathering storm and anticipated its result, while the statesmen were still wrapped in a false security. Five years later came the reform movement produced by the “finding” of the “book of the law” in the Temple in 621 B.C. (2 Kings xxii. 8), and some critics have gathered from Jer. xi. 1–8 that Jeremiah joined the ranks of those who publicly supported this book in Jerusalem and elsewhere. To others this view appears in itself improbable. How can a man like Jeremiah have advocated any such panacea? He was indeed not at first a complete pessimist, but to be a preacher of Deuteronomy required a sanguine temper which a prophet of the school of Isaiah could not possess. Besides, there is a famous passage (viii. 8, see R.V.) in which Jeremiah delivers a vehement attack upon the “scribes” (or, as we might render, “bookmen”) and their “false pen.” If, as Wellhausen and Duhm suppose, this refers to Deuteronomy (i.e. the original Deuteronomy), the incorrectness of the theory referred to is proved. And even if we think that the phraseology of viii. 8 applies rather to a body of writings than to a single book, yet there is no good ground (xi. 1–8 and xxxiv. 12 being of doubtful origin) for supposing that Jeremiah would have excepted Deuteronomy from his condemnation.

Stages of his Development.—At first our prophet was not altogether a pessimist. He aspired to convince the better minds that the only hope for Israelites, as well as for Israel, lay in “returning” to the true Yahweh, a deity who was no mere national god, and was not to be cajoled by the punctual offering of costly sacrifices. When Jeremiah wrote iv. 1–4 he evidently considered that the judgment could even then be averted. Afterwards he became less hopeful, and it was perhaps a closer acquaintance with the manners of the capital that served to disillusionize him. He began his work at Anathoth, but v. 1–5 (as Duhm points out) seems to come from one who has just now for the first time “run to and fro in the streets of Jerusalem,” observing and observed. And what is the result of his expedition? That he cannot find a single just and honest man; that high and low, rich and poor, are all ignorant of the true method of worshipping God (“the way of Yahweh,” v. 4). It would seem as if Anathoth were less corrupt than the capital, the moral state of which so shocked Jeremiah. And yet he does not really go beyond the great city-prophet Isaiah who calls the men of Jerusalem “a people of Gomorrah” (i. 10). With all reverence, an historical student has to deduct something from both these statements. It is true that commercial prosperity had put a severe strain on the old morality, and that contact with other peoples, as well as the course of political history, had appeared to lower the position of the God of Israel in relation to other gods. Still, some adherents of the old Israelitish moral and religious standards must have survived, only they were not to be found in the chief places of concourse, but as a rule in coteries which handed on the traditions of Amos and Isaiah in sorrowful retirement.

Danger of Book Religion.—Probably, too, even in the highest class there were some who had a moral sympathy with Jeremiah; otherwise we can hardly account for the contents of Deuteronomy, at least if the book “found” in the Temple at all resembled the central portion of our Deuteronomy. And the assumption seems to be confirmed by the respectful attitude of certain “elders of the land” in xxvi. 17 sqq., and of the “princes” in xxxvi. 19, 25, towards Jeremiah, which may, at any rate in part, have been due to the recent reform movement. If therefore Jeremiah aimed at Deuteronomy in the severe language of viii. 8, he went too far. History shows that book religion has special dangers of its own.[2] Nevertheless the same incorruptible adviser also shows that book religion may be necessary as an educational instrument, and a compromise between the two types of religion is without historical precedent.

Reaction: Opposition to Jeremiah.—This, however, could not as yet be recognized by the friends of prophecy, even though it seemed for a time as if the claims of book religion were rebuffed by facts. The death of the pious king Josiah at Megiddo in 608 B.C. dashed the high hopes of the “book-men,” but meant no victory for Jeremiah. Its only result for the majority was a falling back on the earlier popular cultus of the Baals, and on the heathen customs introduced, or reintroduced, by Josiah’s grandfather, Manasseh. Would that we possessed the section of the prophet’s biography which described his attitude immediately after the news of the battle of Megiddo! Let us, however, be thankful for what we have, and notably for the detailed narratives in chs. xxvi. and xxxvi. The former is dated in the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim, though Wellhausen suspects that the date is a mistake, and that the real occasion was the death of Josiah. The one clear-sighted patriot saw the full meaning of the tragedy of Megiddo, and for “prophesying against this city”—secured, as men thought, by the Temple (vii. 4)—he was accused by “the priests, the prophets, and all the people” of high treason. But the divinity which hedged a prophet saved him. The “princes,” supported by certain “elders” and by “the people” (quick to change their leaders), succeeded in quashing the accusation and setting the prophet free. No king, be it observed, is mentioned. The latter narrative is still more exciting. In the fourth year of Jehoiakim (= the first of Nebuchadrezzar, xxv. 1) Jeremiah was bidden to write down “all the words that Yahweh had spoken to him against Jerusalem (so LXX.), Judah and all the nations from the days of Josiah onwards” (xxxvi. 2). So at least the authors of Jeremiah’s biography tell us. They add that in the next year Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch read the prophecies of Jeremiah first to the people assembled in the Temple, then to the “princes,” and then to the king, who decided his own future policy by burning Baruch’s roll in the brazier. We cannot, however, bind ourselves to this tradition. Much more probably the prophecy was virtually a new one (i.e. even if some old passages were repeated yet the setting was new), and the burden of the prophecy was “The king of Babylon shall come and destroy this land.”[3] We cannot therefore assent to the judgment that “we have, at least as regards [the] oldest portions [of the book] information considerably more specific than is usual in the case of the writings of the prophets.”[4]

Fall of the State.—Under Zedekiah the prophet was less fortunate. Such was the tension of feeling that the “princes,” who were formerly friendly to Jeremiah, now took up an attitude of decided hostility to him. At last they had him consigned to a miry dungeon, and it was the king who (at the instance of the Cushite Ebed-melech) intervened for his relief, though he remained a prisoner in other quarters till the fall of Jerusalem (586 B.C.). Nebuchadrezzar, who is assumed to have heard of Jeremiah’s constant recommendations of submission, gave him the choice either of going to Babylon or of remaining in the country (chs. xxxviii. seq.). He chose the latter and resided with Gedaliah, the native governor, at Mizpah. On the murder of Gedaliah he was carried to Mizraim or Egypt, or perhaps to the land of Mizrim in north Arabia—against his will (chs. xl.–xliii.). How far all this is correct we know not. The graphic style of a narrative is no sufficient proof of its truth. Conceivably enough the story of Jeremiah’s journey to Egypt (or Mizrim) may have been imagined to supply a background for the artificial prophecies ascribed to Jeremiah in chs. xlvi.–li. A legend in Jerome and Epiphanius states that he was stoned to death at Daphnae, but the biography, though not averse from horrors, does not mention this.

A Patriot?—Was Jeremiah really a patriot? The question has been variously answered. He was not a Phocion, for he never became the tool of a foreign power. To say with Winckler[5] that he was “a decided adherent of the Chaldean party” is to go beyond the evidence. He did indeed counsel submission, but only because his detachment from party gave him a clearness of vision (cf. xxxviii. 17, 18) which the politicians lacked. How he suffered in his uphill course he has told us himself (xv. 10–21). In after ages the oppressed people saw in his love for Israel and his patient resignation their own realized ideal. “And Onias said, This is the lover of the brethren, he who prayeth much for the people and the holy city, Jeremiah the prophet of God” (2 Macc. xv. 14). And in proportion as the popular belief in Jeremiah rose, fresh prophecies were added to the book (notably those of the new covenant and of the restoration of the people after seventy years) to justify it. Professor N. Schmidt has gone further into the character of this sympathetic prophet, Ency. Bib. “Jeremiah,” § 5.

Jeremiah’s Prophecies.—It has been said above that our best authorities are Jeremiah’s own prophecies. Which may these be? Before answering we must again point out (see also Isaiah) that the records of the pre-exilic prophets came down in a fragmentary form, and that these fragments needed much supplementing to adapt them to the use of post-exilic readers. In Jeremiah, as in Isaiah, we must constantly ask to what age do the phraseology, the ideas and the implied circumstances most naturally point? According to Duhm there are many passages in which metre (see also Amos) may also be a factor in our critical conclusions. Jeremiah, he thinks, always uses the same metre. Giesebrecht, on the other hand, maintains that there are passages which are certainly Jeremiah’s, but which are not in what Duhm calls Jeremiah’s metre; Giesebrecht also, himself rather conservative, considers Duhm remarkably free with his emendations. There has also to be considered whether the text of the poetical passages has not often become corrupt, not only from ordinary causes but through the misunderstanding and misreading of north Arabian names on the part of late scribes and editors, the danger to Judah from north Arabia being (it is held) not less in pre-exilic times than the danger from Assyria and Babylonia, so that references to north Arabia are only to be expected. To bring educated readers into touch with critical workers it is needful to acquaint them with these various points, the neglect of any one of which may to some extent injure the results of criticism.

It is a new stage of criticism on which we have entered, so that no single critic can be reckoned as the authority on Jeremiah. But since the results of the higher criticism depend on the soundness and thoroughness of the criticism called “lower,” and since Duhm has the advantage of being exceptionally free from that exaggerated respect for the letters of the traditional text which has survived the destruction of the old superstitious veneration for the vowel-points, it may be best to give the student his “higher critical” results, dated 1901. Let us premise, however, that the portions mentioned in the 9th edition of the Ency. Brit. as having been “entirely or in part denied,” to Jeremiah, viz. x. 1–16; xxx.; xxxiii.; l.–li. and lii., are still regarded in their present form as non-Jeremianic. The question which next awaits decision is whether any part of the booklet on foreign nations (xxv., xlvi.-li.) can safely be regarded as Jeremianic. Giesebrecht still asserts the genuineness of xxv. 15-24 (apart from glosses), xlvii. (in the main) and xlix. 7, 8, 10, 11. Against these views see N. Schmidt, Ency. Bib., col. 2384.

Let us now listen to Duhm, who analyses the book into six groups of passages. These are (a) i.–xxv., the “words of Jeremiah.” (i. 1); (b) xxvi.–xxix., passages from Baruch’s biography of Jeremiah; (c) xxx.–xxxi., the book of the future of Israel and Judah; (d) xxxii.–xlv., from Baruch; (e) xlvi.–li., the prophecies “concerning the nations”;[6] (f) lii., historical appendix. Upon examining these groups we find that besides a prose letter (ch. xxix.), about sixty poetical pieces may be Jeremiah’s. A: Anathoth passages before 621, (a) ii. 2b, 3, 14–28; ii. 29–37; iii. 1–5; iii. 12b, 13, 19, 20; iii. 21–25; iv. i, 3, 4; these form a cycle, (b) xxxi. 2–6; 15–20; 21, 22; another cycle. (c) iv. 5–8; 11b, 12a, 13, 15–17a; 19–21; 23–26; 29–31; visions and “auditions” of the impending invasion. B: Jerusalem passages. (d) v. 1–6a; 6b–9; 10–17; vi. 1–5; 6b–8; 9–14; 16, 17, 20; 22–26a; 27–30; vii. 28, 29; viii. 4–7a; 8, 9, 13; 14–17; viii. 18–23; ix. 1–8; 9 (short song); 16–18; 19–21; x. 19, 20, 22; reign of Josiah, strong personal element. (e) xxii. 10 (Jehoahaz). xxii. 13–17; probably too xi. 15, 16; xii. 7–12 (Jehoiakim). xxii. 18, 19, perhaps too xxii. 6b, 7; 20–23; and the cycle xiii. 15, 16; 17; 18, 19; 20, 21a, 22–25a, 26, 27 (later, Jehoiakim). xxii. 24; xxii. 28 (Jehoiachin). (f) Later poems. xiv. 2–10; xv. 5–9; xvi. 5–7; xviii. 13–17; xxiii. 9–12; 13–15; xi. 18–20; xv. 10–12; 15–19a, and 20, 21; xvii. 9, 10, 14, 16, 17; xviii. 18–20; xx. 7–11; xx. 14–18; xiv. 17, 18; xvii. 1–4; xxxviii. 24; assigned to the close of Zedekiah’s time.

Two Recensions of the Text.—It has often been said that we have virtually two recensions of the text, that represented by the Septuagint and the Massoretic text, and critics have taken different sides, some for one and some for the other. “Recension,” however, is a bad term; it implies that the two texts which undeniably exist were the result of revising and editing according to definite critical principles. Such, however, is not the case. It is true that “there are (in the LXX.) many omissions of words, sentences, verses and whole passages, in fact, that altogether about 2700 words are wanting, or the eighth part of the Massoretic text” (Bleek). It may also be admitted that the scribes who produced the Hebrew basis of the Septuagint version, conscious of the unsettled state of the text, did not shrink from what they considered a justifiable simplification. But we must also grant that those from whom the “written” Hebrew text proceeds allowed themselves to fill up and to repeat without any sufficient warrant. In each case in which there is a genuine difference of reading between the two texts, it is for the critic to decide; often, however, he will have to seek to go behind what both the texts present in order to constitute a truer text than either. Here is the great difficulty of the future. We may add to the credit of the Septuagint that the position given to the prophecies on “the nations” (chs. xlvi.–li. in our Bible) in the Septuagint is probably more original than that in the Massoretic text. On this point see especially Schmidt, Ency. Bib. “Jeremiah (Book)” §§ 6 and 21; Davidson, Hastings’s Dict. Bible, ii. 573b–575; Driver, Introduction (8th ed.), pp. 269, 270.

The best German commentary is that of Cornill (1905). A skilful translation by Driver, with notes intended for ordinary students (1906) should also be mentioned. (T. K. C.) 

  1. Davidson (Hast., D.B., ii. 570 b) mentions two views. (1) The foe might be “a creation of his moral presentiment and assigned to the north as the cloudy region of mystery.” (2) The more usual view is that the Scythians (see Herod, i. 76, 103–106; iv. 1) are meant. Neither of these views is satisfactory. The passage v. 15–17 is too definite for (1), and as for (2), the idea of a threatened Scythian invasion lacks a sufficient basis. Those who hold (2) have to suppose that original references to the Scythians were retouched under the impression of Chaldean invasions. Hence Cheyne’s theory of a north Arabian invasion from the land of Zaphon=Zibeon (Gen. xxxvi. 2, 14), i.e. Ishmael. Cf. N. Schmidt, Ency. Bib., Zibeon, “Scythians,” § 8; Cheyne, Critica Biblica, part i. (Isaiah and Jeremiah).
  2. Cf. Ewald, The Prophets, Eng. trans., iii. 63, 64.
  3. Cheyne, Ency. Brit. (9th ed.,), “Jeremiah,” suggests after Grätz that the roll simply contained ch. xxv., omitting the most obvious interpolations. Against this view see N. Schmidt, Ency. Bib., “Jeremiah (Book),” § 8, who, however, accepts the negative part of Cheyne’s arguments.
  4. Driver, Introd. to the Lit. of the O.T. (6), p. 249.
  5. In Helmolt’s Weltgeschichte, iii. 211.
  6. li. 59–64a, however, is a specimen of imaginative “Midrashic” history. See Giesebrecht’s monograph.