The great prophet Jeremiah lived during one of the most critical periods in Jewish history. He saw the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Beth Hamikdosh, after his warnings and prophecies fell on deaf ears. When the catastrophe came, he lamented the terrible fate of his people in the Book of Eichah (Lamentations) which we read on Tisha B'Av. At the same time he was a source of courage to his people by pointing out to them the path that would lead to their redemption. His prophecies are recorded in the Book of Jeremiah, which also contains the important events of his life.
Jeremiah was born in a priestly family, in the town of Anatoth belonging to the Tribe of Benjamin. His father was the prophet and Kohen-Gadol (High Priest) Hilkiah. Jeremiah began his prophecies in the thirteenth year of King Josiah's reign (in the year 3298). The prophet Zephania and the prophetess Hulda also lived at that time.
Jeremiah was still a young man when the spirit of prophecy came upon him. He was fearful to accept such a responsibility, declaring, "I am still a boy!" But G‑d said to him, "Say not, 'I am a boy,' for you shall go to all that I shall send you, and whatever I command you you shall speak. Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you" (Jeremiah 1:6-8). From that moment, Jeremiah lost all fear and delivered his sad prophecies and warnings without regard for the king and his strong men, often at the very peril of his life. He prophesied during the remaining years of Josiah's reign (3285-3316) and during the reigns of his sons Jehoachaz (who reigned three months), and Jeohiakim (3316-3327), the latter's son Jehoiachin (who reigned for 100 days), and finally Zedekiah, the son of Josiah, the last king of Judah (3327-3338). Altogether Jeremiah prophesied for forty years until the Destruction of the Beth Hamikdosh, and for a short time thereafter.
One of Jeremiah's first missions was to go to the exiled Ten Tribes of Israel, whose kingdom in the north had been destroyed by the Assyrians less than a century previously (in the year 3205). Jeremiah brought them courage and hope and induced many of them to return to their native land.
King Josiah was the last G‑d-fearing monarch that reigned in Judah. He fell in battle against Pharaoh Necho, king of Egypt. After his death the people sank deeper in idolatry, and Jeremiah tried hard, but without avail, to bring them back to the path of the Torah.
In a moving prophecy, Jeremiah reminded his people of their early history, when, full of faith, they followed Moshe Rabbenu into the desert. He pictured the loyalty of the Jewish people to G‑d as that of a newly-wedded bride to her husband, and he wonders what has happened to his people that they had turned away from G‑d:
"Thus says G‑d: I remember unto you the affection of your youth, the love of your betrothal; how you went after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown. Israel is G‑d's holy portion, the first harvest; all that devour him shall be held guilty; evil shall come upon them, says G‑d.
"Hear ye the word of G‑d, O House of Jacob, and all the families of the House of Israel. Thus says G‑d: What unrighteousness have your fathers found in Me that they are gone far from Me and have walked after vanity and have become vain?... I brought you into a land of plentiful fields, to eat its fruit and goodness; but when you entered, you defiled My land, and made my heritage an abomination... For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, that can hold no water." (Jeremiah 2:2-13).
It is not enough, the prophet complained, that the Jewish people have forsaken G‑d and His Torah-the fountain of life, but they turned to idolatry and a false way of life which can give no life, but only misfortune.
The prophet declared that the wisdom of the idol worshipping nations, nor riches, nor power have real value, but only knowledge of G‑d and following in His ways. Thus, one of Jeremiah's most famous teachings is the following:
"Thus says G‑d: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might; let not the rich man glory in his riches. But let him that glories, glory in this: that he understands and knows Me, that I am G‑d, Who practices mercy, justice and righteousness on the earth; for in these things I delight, says G‑d." (Jeremiah 9:22-23) .
The prophet also taught that it is no use relying on man, for in doing so one denies G‑d; only trust in G‑d is certain to be rewarded:
"Thus says G‑d: Cursed is the man that trusts in man, and makes flesh his arm (power), and whose heart departs from G‑d. For he shall be like a tamarisk in the desert, and shall not see when good comes... Blessed is the man that trusts in G‑d...for he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, that spreads out its roots by the river, that shall not see when heat comes, but its foliage shall be luxurious; and shall not be anxious in the year of drought, neither shall it cease from yielding fruit." (Jeremiah 17:5-8).
As already mentioned, the death of the pious king Josiah brought about a decline in the spiritual life of the people, for the kings that succeeded him did not measure up to him at all. Before his death King Josiah appointed his second son Jehoachaz to succeed him to the throne, because he seemed more inclined than his older brother to follow in his father's footsteps. The people accepted the choice and proclaimed Jehoachaz as their king. But his reign was very brief, lasting only three months, during which time he did not live up to his father's expectations at all. His reign was brought to an end by Pharaoh Necho, king of Egypt, who invaded the land of Judah, captured its king and took him in chains to Egypt, where he died in captivity. In his place Pharaoh Necho placed Jehoachaz's older brother Eliakim on the throne, changing his name to Joiakim.
King Joiakim was even worse than his brother. He disregarded the laws of the Torah which his father had so strictly enforced in the land, and set a poor example for his people by following the ways of wickedness and idolatry.
Jeremiah watched the growing demoralization of his people with pain in his heart, and he sternly admonished them.
"Roam about the streets of Jerusalem, and see now, and know, and search in its broad places, if you can find one man, if there be one that executes justice, that searches the truth-and I will pardon it. And though they say, 'As G‑d lives,' surely they only swear to a falsehood...They have denied G‑d and said, 'It is not He; evil shall not come upon us, neither shall we see sword or famine...'
"Therefore, thus says G‑d, the G‑d of Hosts, Because you speak this word, I will make my words in your mouth as fire, and this people as wood; and it shall devour them. Behold, I will bring a nation upon you from far... a mighty nation it is; an ancient nation, a nation whose language you do not know, and do not understand what they say. Their quiver is as an open grave, they are all mighty men. And they shall eat up your harvest and your bread, which your sons and daughters should eat; they shall eat up your flocks and your herds; they shall eat up your vines and your fig-trees; they shall impoverish your fortified cities in which you trust, by the sword. Nevertheless, in those days, says G‑d, I will not make a full end with you." (Jeremiah 5:1-18).
In the meantime, important events took place among the neighboring mighty empires which rivaled for supremacy. About these, and more about the prophet Jeremiah, next month, please G‑d.