What is the genre of Jeremiah? And how do we understand its structure, main idea, and intended response?
This post is a continuation of the series on Preaching the Book of Jeremiah with Pastor Paul Alexander. Listen to this segment after the 5:20 timestamp.
KH: Jeremiah is a book of prophecy. What are some of the distinctive elements of prophecy that we see in Jeremiah and also, what are some unique features of Jeremiah that we should know?
PA: Yea, these are the things that sometimes confuse us, but once we understand them they make the book really exciting and interesting and fascinating, then also, convicting and encouraging.
A couple of things that I notice, that anybody is going to notice if they read it carefully. One is prophetic vision. God will ask Jeremiah a question like, “What do you see Jeremiah?” Especially, in the first chapter the vision of the almonds. He says, “The almond tree” (Jeremiah 1:11). God says, “I’m watching over my Word to perform it.” You can see, usually in the ESV in a footnote or something it will say the word for ‘almond’ sounds like the word for ‘watching over.’ Now every time I eat an almond (I love almonds!) every time I eat an almond I’m reminded, “God is watching over His Word to perform it.” It’s wonderful how He uses these very common images that we can see every day to remind us of His faithfulness and goodness.
Or then, the Vision of the Good and Bad Figs in Jeremiah 24 where the good figs are the obedient Judeans who go to Babylon in obedience to God’s word and the bad figs stay in Jerusalem or go to Egypt. He’s giving the prophet visions or dreams.
Then another idea or another kind of distinctive literary element would be an acting parable. God will tell Jeremiah “Do something and I’m going to give that act a theological or devotional point or meaning.” He says, “bury this loin cloth” in chapter 13. He says, “Look when you go back to get it, it’s going to be totally torn up and nasty and rotted.” He says, “I’m going to spoil the pride of Judah and Jerusalem just like that loin cloth got spoiled.” Or, “Break the flask” in Jeremiah 19:10. “Break this flask in the sight of the men of Judah, the leaders of Judah. Then say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord, so will I break this people and this city.'” It’s an acted illustration of what God’s going to do. Or buy a field, so it can be judgment like in the loin cloth or the flask but it can be hope. He says to Jeremiah in Jeremiah 32, buy a field in Judea during the siege. That doesn’t sound like a very good investment does it? But God says, “For thus says the Lord, houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” I mean, what a sweet image.
Another couple distinctive elements. Jeremiah’s prays prayers of complaint between Jeremiah 12 and Jeremiah 20, where he’s complaining to the Lord, “Look, they’re not listening. My reputation is getting dragged through the mud. I’m suffering.” It’s kind of distinctive. You don’t really hear Isaiah doing that. You don’t really hear Ezekiel doing that, or any of the other prophets. But Jeremiah does that regularly and it’s a good lesson for us in how to persevere or not persevere in ministry.
Lots of metaphoric imagery, just like in all of the prophets especially in Jeremiah the marriage and infidelity as images of idolatry in like chapter 2 or 3. And then you get these limited historical narratives. Later on in the thirties and forties of Jeremiah where you see acted out and illustrated in the history of Jeremiah’s relationships with the leaders of Jerusalem. All the principles that we read of in Jeremiah 1 to 29, they’re not listening to God’s Word. They just refuse to listen. God’s been clear time and time again. Then you get these historical narratives of times where Jeremiah does in fact preach God’s word to them and they just refuse to listen, flat out. They will say as much word for word. Those are some of the things that are interesting to look at and really be pivotal if you’re going to understand the whole book.
KH: Let’s move on to structure. Jeremiah is unlike books like Genesis or Jonah, where there’s a really clear cut and dry structure, chronological. How is Jeremiah structured? How did that influence your sermon series?
PA: That’s probably one of the most challenging things. Especially, as you go to do your own work in the text and then you read the commentaries or read a historical material and think, “Oh, I might have missed this or that.” Roughly, roughly you get speeches (9:17) about judgement and hope for Judah. Lots of judgment in Jeremiah 1-29 so you get the reasons for God’s coming judgement, His exile of Judah to Babylon. Then you have, what is often referred to as the book of comfort in Jeremiah 30-33 where you get the New Covenant promises. Then roughly, chapter 34-45 historical narratives leading up to Judah’s fall. Then 46-52 is mostly judgement on the pagan nations that surround Judah and the fall of Jerusalem as well. Those are kind of the things that structured it. Then on a mid or micro level it’s often structured by statements like, “Thus says the Lord” or “The word of the Lord came to me.” As soon as I saw those statements I would say, “OK, that looks like it’s either a major break or a mini break in the text.” I had to figure out what all is God saying this time to Jeremiah and how does that structure the unit or the conversation that God is having with Jeremiah or the oracle that He’s giving him? Where does that begin, where does that end? How does that relate to the next one?
KH: Often times the author will use statements, “This king was in power during this year when this happened to Jeremiah” and that can help you at least find the timeframe when you’re working and show you there’s a clear break.
What would you say is Jeremiah’s main idea and intended response?
PA: This is one of those books where it’s really nice, because the Lord just gives it to you. Like we were just talking about, in chapter one verse ten, “I’ve set you this day over nations and over kingdoms to pluck up and break down to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” You can tell just from that verse, God’s bringing judgement and He’s also going to bring restoration and salvation to His people.
There’s this warning of exile because of broken covenant because of spiritual adultery. They are worshipping other gods, they are not paying attention to God’s commandments especially the Ten Commandments. Then you get that idea referenced later on, in chapter 31:28. It’s referenced in terms of comfort. “I’m going to build again what I’ve torn down. I’m going to build again.” Or 45:4, He’s going back to judgment and saying “Look, what I built, I’m going to tear down. I have every right to do that. I have every reason to do that. I have a right to do that as God as creator and redeemer and I have a reason to do it in Israel’s and Judah’s sin.”
Then you get these corresponding subsidiary ideas too, judgment and salvation in terms of theme, like listening to or rejecting God’s word. God says to them, “Put away your idols.” But in Jeremiah 44:16 the people say to Jeremiah point blank, “As for the word you’ve spoken to us in the name of the Lord, we will not listen to you.” It’s that clear. It’s that bold and blunt. The stubbornness of the human heart repeatedly shows up. If you’re listening to or reading this interview, read through Jeremiah broadly and listen. Look for all the times that God refers to the stubbornness of the human heart. It reoccurs probably ten or fifteen times through the first 20 or so chapters of Jeremiah. The people are following their stubborn evil hearts. That speaks to us today. Or you get the theme of religious hypocrisy that comes from just being complacent in our walk with the Lord and our trust in outward blessings. We assume those are always going to be there. Those would be, I would say, the main ideas and how those things get worked out. There’s a lot more, but listening to or rejecting God’s word is a huge one and so is the stubbornness of the human heart.
KH: We’ll get into this later, but it’d be a huge temptation to hear the word of the Lord which is judgment against you and want to reject it.
PA: Yes. The intended response though, God wants us to repent not reject it. He’s telling us “Look, this is how you’ve sinned and I want you to repent.” That’s the intended response, but if you don’t repent, I’m going to bring judgment. You hear Him pleading with His people in a very kind way in chapter three. “Return faithless Israel.” He’s just prosecuted them basically for spiritual adultery. But then He says, “Return faithless Israel, I will not look on you in anger for I am merciful. Only acknowledge your guilt.” And again in chapter 4 verse 1, “If you will return, O Israel, to me you should return.” He’s even teaching them. Here’s what you did and here’s what you need to do about that. He doesn’t leave them in the dark. He tells them, you need to turn around. And when you turn around you don’t just need behavior modification. You need a new relationship to Me. You need to turn not just from your sin, you need Me. It’s to Me that you need to return. Again, how relevant is that? We all need to hear that. Every time that we are being call to repent. It’s not just being called to turn over a new leaf morally. We’re being called back to right relationship and fellowship with Christ.