The Book of Jeremiah was written by the prophet of that name over the course of his ministry, which lasted from approximately 626 – 580 BC. Jeremiah tells us that he dictated his words to his secretary, Baruch. Jeremiah began his ministry during the thirteenth year of King Josiah, and he continued preaching through the reigns of Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. He lingered in Jerusalem even after Nebuchadnezzar finally destroyed the city in 586 BC.
With regard to Jeremiah’s message, Walt Kaiser Jr. and Duane Garrett write in the NIV Archaeological Study Bible:
Reclusive, analytical and self-critical by nature— he has aptly been called the ‘weeping prophet’— Jeremiah also preached an unpopular message. The people of Judah were in apostasy, God would not protect them and they were obliged to submit to Babylonian demands. Above all, and despite the promise that someday God would give Israel a new covenant (Jer 31), the prophet’s overall message was one of doom and gloom: Jerusalem was soon to fall. Because of his negative stance, Jeremiah was widely despised and continuously in danger (11: 18– 23; 26: 8; 38: 6). On at least one occasion the text of his message was destroyed by the king (36: 20– 24). Even Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch, was dismayed about his own future (ch. 45). Jeremiah, an old man, lived to see his words fulfilled and Jerusalem destroyed.
As chapter 27 opens, the year is 594 BC and Zedekiah is king in Judah. Zedekiah has invited ambassadors from neighboring nations to Jerusalem to decide whether to rebel against Babylon and King Nebuchadnezzar.
God instructs Jeremiah to make an ox yoke and place it around his neck. An ox yoke was made of wooden bars fastened around the neck by leather straps. It was placed on cattle to steer them for plowing or threshing.
Jeremiah goes to the ambassadors and gives them the very unpopular message that they are to submit to Babylonian rule (symbolized by the ox yoke around Jeremiah’s neck) until God ends the Babylonian empire in the distant future. F. B. Huey, in vol. 16, Jeremiah, Lamentations, The New American Commentary, explains that “the expression ‘his son and his grandson’ (lit. “son’s son”) must not be taken literally. It is an idiom for a long period of time.” If they rebel against Babylon, God Himself will punish them with sword, famine, and pestilence. The Babylonian Empire would eventually be defeated by Persia under Cyrus in 539 BC.
Jeremiah makes clear to King Zedekiah and the foreign envoys that God has chosen Nebuchadnezzar to rule over their nations. If they rebel against Babylon, they are rebelling against God. Jeremiah warns them to ignore false prophets who are promising victory over Babylon if they will rebel. The nations who submit to Babylon will not have their capitals destroyed and their people deported. Unfortunately, we know that Judah did not heed Jeremiah’s words and did attempt to escape Babylonian rule, only to be crushed in 586 BC.
As we skip ahead to chapter 28, Jeremiah is confronted by a prophet of Judah named Hananiah. Hananiah tells the people of Jerusalem that God will break the Babylonians and return all the exiles and all the treasures of the temple in two years. He then takes the yoke from Jeremiah’s neck, breaks it, and repeats that Babylon will fall within two years.
Is Hananiah knowingly lying about his prophecy or does he sincerely believe that God has told him Babylon will fall within two years? No one can say for sure, but Hananiah may have been persuaded to make his bold prediction because of the events unfolding in Babylon at that time. F. B. Huey writes,
The Babylonian Chronicles indicate that Nebuchadnezzar was putting down a revolt in Babylon at that time. His preoccupation with troubles elsewhere may have encouraged Hananiah’s optimistic belief of imminent return of the exiles. It is probable, therefore, that Hananiah thought of himself as a real prophet of God. People must, however, be cautious when they confuse their own desires and ideas (i.e., Hananiah) with those of God.
Jeremiah responds that he hopes Hananiah is right, but that Hananiah is contradicting the many prophets who preceded him. They predicted war, famine, and pestilence because of the sins of Judah. If Hananiah is predicting peace instead, then his word must be tested. If Babylon falls and peace comes within two years, then Hananiah is the true prophet. Jeremiah is invoking the test of Deut 18:20–22.
Some time after this occurs, God speaks to Jeremiah and settles the dispute. God reiterates that He has chosen Nebuchadnezzar to rule over Judah and that Judah and the surrounding nations must submit to Babylonian rule. To fight against Babylon is to fight against God Himself. God tells Jeremiah that Hananiah is a false prophet who is lying to the people. To prove this is true, God decrees that Hananiah will die within the year (death was the penalty for false prophets prescribed in Deut 13:5; 18:20). He dies less than two months later, thus proving that he was a false prophet.
There are not only false prophets in Jerusalem who are predicting the soon return of the exiles, there are false prophets among the exile community in Babylon who are saying the same things. In chapter 29, Jeremiah writes a letter to the exile community to counter the false prophets among them.
Jeremiah’s instructions to the exiles are to settle down and make Babylon their home. They are to build houses and families. They are to pray for the Babylonians and seek their good. They are not to listen to the prophets who are telling them that Babylon will fall and they will return home soon. Huey notes that
this is the only place in the OT where prayer for one’s enemies and for unbelievers is commended (cf. Matt 5:43–48; Rom 12:21; Titus 3:1–2; 1 Pet 2:18). It was practical advice though difficult to put into practice. It has never been easy to pray for one’s enemies. However, it was in their best interest to do so. If Babylon prospered, the exiles would prosper also. Praying for the government has become a Jewish custom.
After 70 years in exile, God will bring the Jews back to the Promised Land. God reassures the exiles that He has not abandoned them, that His plans are to bring them back and give them peace and prosperity. When the exiles seek after God, God will be found by them.