“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” That’s not only part of the opening line to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, it’s also a decent way of characterizing the historical backdrop for the book of Jeremiah. Only, the percentage of time that was good was much, much less than the time that wasn’t. I’ll explain why I say that and how we know that in a moment but first let’s quickly see how Jeremiah is introduced to us. He is the prophet whose words we read – “the words of Jeremiah” (1:1a) and the prophet “to whom the word of the LORD came” (1:2a). He was one of those holy men that Peter described who was carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:19-21), writing with his personality and writing style all intact, yet so sovereignly superintended that the result of his script was, none other than, God-breathed Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16).
Jeremiah was the son of Hilkiah, a man we do not know anything else about; his hometown was Anathoth in the land of Benjamin (1:1c), a priestly town (Jos. 21:18), situated on the northern slopes of the Mount of Olives, about two miles away from Jerusalem; thus, he lived in close proximity to the corruption he would confront. That’s what we know about him one verse into the book, but as you will see – we learn a lot more about him as the book unfolds.
Now to explain and nuance the ‘best of times/ worst of times’ comment.
The word of the LORD came to Jeremiah in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign (1:2b). When you hear the name Josiah, if you’re familiar with the Old Testament, you’re more likely to think something like, “Yay” rather than “Yikes.” He was not a perfect man but he was a godly king (2 Ki. 22:2; 2 Chron. 34:2), known for leading Judah into one of the greatest periods of reformation in the nation’s history. Josiah’s ministry saw both a mini-reformation (2 Chr. 34:3-7) and a major reformation (34:8-35:19). And as it relates to the prophet Jeremiah, the word of the LORD came to him in the 13th year of Josiah’s reign (627 B.C.), five years before the major reformation when the Book of the Law was found (622 B.C.). The fact that the Book of the Law was lost explains, in part, why the state of the people was clearly wanting, and why reformation was needed. After all, spiritual health and the word of God go together; if you remove the North Star of God’s Word it’s not long before men go walking in ways that seem right to them but nonetheless lead to destruction (cf. Prov. 14:12; 16:25).
So things were still messy during the time of Josiah’s mini-reformation; hence, the prophetic warnings and calls to repentance found in the earlier parts of Jeremiah’s book (1–17). But soon after the law was found and reformation came ‘it was the best of times’… for a time. Remember, Jeremiah didn’t only receive the word of the Lord in the 13th year of Josiah. Verse three says: “It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the carrying away of Jerusalem captive in the fifth month” (1:3). After Josiah, as far the kingship and the spiritual temperature of the nation was concerned, it was all downhill – it was the worst of times.
Granted, it may not give you the ‘warm-and-fuzzies’, but following Jeremiah’s lead in verse three, here is some Spirit-inspired history that you’d do well to know. Briefly preceding Jehoiakim (609-598/ 597 B.C.) was the short-lived, three-month reign of Jehoahaz (609 B.C.) before he was imprisoned by Pharaoh Neco II (2 Ki. 23:31-33). Jehoiakim, a name given to him by Pharaoh Neco (vs.34), was placed on the throne as a vassal king to Egypt. He later became a vassal to Nebuchadnezzar, rebelled against him, and soon after died (24:1-5). His son Jehoiachin took a turn at ruling but like Jehoahaz it only lasted three months (vs.8). After him came Judah’s last king before the captivity, Zedekiah (597-586 B.C.), formerly known as Matthaniah (24:17), another man who had his name changed by a foreign king, this time the king of Babylon. He and all of the kings who proceeded Josiah had something in common – they “did evil in the sight of the LORD” (23:31, 37; 24:9, 19).
Jeremiah’s forty-year period of ministry contained one of the brightest spots in Judah’s history, but the majority of his ministry was spent living in times that were entrenched and abounding with unrepentant iniquity. His times were difficult to say the least. He saw some of the most painful things that human eyes can see. He was on the receiving end of persecution in both expected and unexpected places. He also found himself in what some might consider expected and unexpected places, e.g. the temple gate and a cistern. He was called to, and endured, great personal sacrifices. And through it all he stayed true to the calling that God had given him, and faithful to the message that God had called him to speak, all by strength that God had provided him. It’s for those reasons and much more that we ought to sit and listen to the “words of Jeremiah” and be instructed by “the word of the LORD” that came to him.