The Historical and Political Background of Jeremiah's World
Is God interested in politics?
Is God really into politics? He certainly is! The prophet Habakkuk tells us of God’s hand behind the Chaldean invasion into Judah (Hab. 1:6). Isaiah tells us of the Persian ruler Cyrus, who is to carry out God’s plans for Israel’s return from exile (Isa 45:1).
Look at what is happening in the Middle East right now. It is not merely a battle between dissatisfied groups, progressives or fanatics, sorting out the nations in that part of the world. It is all taking place under the watchful eye of the Lord of the nations, as much as it was in the times of Jeremiah. Only then, the prophets spelled out specific reasons. (And notice that classic expression used in Jeremiah’s prophecy: “Magor-missabib”, i.e. Terror on every side! – Jer 20:3, 4, 10)
World history is still very much “His story”, in that He is shaping the world for the ultimate coming of the Prince of Peace.
The book of Jeremiah is a book for our times, indeed, but it takes great wisdom to preach from it.
Just as in Jeremiah’s time, a Covenant-governed nation of God’s people was becoming engrossed in the world around her, so a Christian-impacted society is turning away from the gospel in today’s pluralistic environment. We observe this currently in the so-called “Christian West”. Meanwhile, the Church in the East and the Middle East is growing, despite persecution and opposition.
It is Jeremiah, the man of God, who was wrestling as a “weeping prophet” to speak out to a people who have the Scriptures (the Law and the Prophets). Six centuries later, we see Jesus, the Son of God, weeping over Jerusalem (Matt. 23:37-39). In the historical background we consider, it is the people of God that matter most.
The world that then was...
Jeremiah lived in a world that saw major shifts in political power during his lifetime. When the prophet was born the great super-power of the day was Assyria. We see the impact of this already in the days of King Hezekiah. It was Assyria that carried the Northern Kingdom into exile (722 BC).
Before the final defeat of Samaria, Syria had been a constant thorn in the side of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
Further afield, other nations began to awake and spread their wings. Some eventually affected the land of Israel, but many stayed quite a distance away. Before the fall of Samaria the city of Rome was built (753 BC), and very gradually it began to expand westward, eastward, northward and southward. The Roman empire came into being slowly, but its excellent road systems were not only serving their armies, but the propagating of the gospel as well.
Also on the Western side the Greeks began to assert themselves. Their impact came through Hellenisation (spreading Greek customs, culture and language) over many centuries, ultimately paving the way for the spreading of the Gospel. Alexander the Great, who initiated this impact, did not come on the scene until 338 BC.
Closer to Jeremiah’s time was the invasion of the Scythians from the Russian steppes in the North. They pushed their way into the Middle East, but did not affect Israel and Judah.
From the Eastern frontiers the Medes (present-day Kurds) began to make their presence felt, ultimately blending with the Persians. The Persians in turn conquered the rich Lydian empire in present-day Turkey, which made them eventually rub shoulders with the Greeks.
This gives us a glimpse of historical developments which were going to affect the spread of the gospel later on.
One more area of interest, although it did not affect the spread of the gospel in the earliest centuries, was China. Beyond the Parthian and Median empires to the East, lay the vast Chinese empire, at that time under the Zhou dynasty. Jewish exiles had already settled there not long after the time of Daniel. They were known by the Chinese as the people who “don’t eat the sinew of the hip” (Genesis 32:32). That was also the time of the well-known philosopher Confucius.
Eventually the gospel reached China around 630AD, from Syria, via the Silk Road.
This is a broad picture of the political and historical scene. It helps us to see the Middle East in its bigger context.
The specific historical and political context of Jeremiah’s time
Shortly after the time of the godly king, Josiah (640-609 BC), the Assyrian armies were defeated. They were initially aided by armies from the African bloc (Egypt, Sudan/Ethiopia) under Pharaoh Neco. On the Eastern side the Babylonian armies and those of the Medes attacked, and great Nineveh fell, just as the prophet Nahum had predicted it. This was in 605 BC at the battle of Carchemish.
Then the battles were drawn between Babylonia (also known as Chaldea) and Egypt and its confederates. Egypt was pushed back to its home territory and defeated, and the Babylonian troops under Nebuchadnezzar began their big triumph through the Middle East. We notice that Israel/Judah was a kind of “buffer-state” between the big powers.
The smaller nations surrounding Judah were all subdued, e.g. Edom, Moab, Ammon and others.
There were a number of deportations from Judah and Jerusalem during Jeremiah’s time. The first (ca. 605BC) included Daniel and others of nobility. They were to be “re-educated” to serve at the Babylonian court.
A second group (597BC) included Ezekiel and others of some standing. They included craftsmen and others who were to settle in the Chebar region, in a place called Tell-Abib. Jeremiah writes to them (Jer 29) and tells them to settle down in their community among the Babylonians, and to “seek the ‘shalom’ of the cities where they were settled”.
The third group of exiles came to Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem (586 BC). They were the left-over population, including some royals, soldiers and common folk.
Actually, there was a fourth group of exiles: a group of Jerusalem dwellers and others left behind by Nebuchadnezzar, who escaped into Egypt and took Jeremiah along, against his will.
In chapter 25 of the prophecy, Jeremiah is told by the Lord that the exile would last seventy years, and it is clear that these years started as from the first group of exiles. This term of punishment was for Judah’s failure to serve and honour the LORD. But also Israel’s enemies were going to receive punishments. In fact that whole 25th chapter shows Jeremiah and us that we are to keep our eyes on the real or primary cause of History, the Lord is working out His plans!! The secondary causes are the world powers vying for top positions! God is the Lord of History: the nations are His servants.
God is dealing with His people Israel, and the nations are His “rod”. (This is a principle that must be borne in mind for today too! Even the church will not go scot-free!)
The last part of Jeremiah 25 hints at the culminating battle at the end of history, and makes us aware of the Great Day of the Lord which is to come (cf Revelation 19:11-21).
Babylon, in fact, becomes a symbol of the world powers (political and economical): “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the great!” (Rev 18:2).
Design in disaster
Let us never forget God’s “saving” design in the exile. In chapter 24 Jeremiah relates a vision which the Lord showed him: Two baskets of figs: one full of good figs, and the other filled with bad figs! The earlier exiles were the good figs “to be preserved in Babylon”, the bad figs were left behind for the final (3rd) exile.
Life as we face it with all its ups and downs serves a purpose, and the Lord in His Sovereign designs can and does use even the negative elements in our lives for our good (Romans 8:28).
Even for Israel God had a purpose through all their ups and downs. That concerned the first Coming of Messiah, according to promise. It also concerns God’s promises as to the Nation, as the apostle Paul embarks on that in Romans 9-10-11. And so WE are involved in that design, as our Saviour sends us out to bring the gospel and “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19, 20). And “all nations” includes Israel!
End times and values for today!
This article is not meant to be merely an objective evaluation of the past, but also an evaluation to understand the future in the light of God’s Word. God never contradicts Himself or any aspect of His holy and true nature.
And even so, we may be able with committed orthodoxy to analyse God’s acts and actions in this world, yet with little benefit to us unless this analysis penetrates our personal spiritual life, and we begin to live and function with deep-felt awareness of the God who personally stepped into our shoes of humanity, and walked on this earth with all its pains and problems. For in His coming in Jesus He did not act out of character.
In all His Sovereign greatness He is still the compassionate Saviour, who sent His compassionate Comforter to guide His Body, His Bride, the Church, into all truth!
In all His greatness He still sees fit to stir His church to action, to discipline and disciple her, to use testings and struggles for our well-being. Here I was reminded of Dr M.R. deHaan (sr)’s book “Broken Things”. He quotes Jeremiah 4:3 “...Break up your fallow ground...” Here is a principle of renewal! If the ground is not broken, there will be no sowing and no harvest! God is looking for fruitfulness in our lives.
When the exiled people did not have a temple anymore, they built synagogues for prayer and the study of the Word, and God brought about revival and reformation. We still need reformation, most of all in our own hearts, for the idols of this age are close to our hearts. As Jeremiah said (7:3f)...”Amend your ways and your deeds”, when the people kept saying, “The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord!” Likewise the prophet may well say to us, “Amend your ways and your deeds...” while we say, “The Word of the Lord! The Word of the Lord!”
Gordon MacDonald hammers home the need of forging a “real world” faith. And that faith needs to behold “a real God”! Do we see the world for what it is? Do we see God for Who He really is?
The apostle’s words are still valid: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols!” (1 John 5:21).
Makes you think! At least, I hope so!