Was Jeremiah a protester?

Q. What was Jeremiah’s status in his society? Was he like a protester, as we think of our modern-day societies? Or he was something else? We know as readers that he was a prophet of God, but it seems somehow Judah didn’t see it that way. Reading the book of Jeremiah, it would seem that he didn’t care about his social class, but if I try to imagine, it seems that he was a vocal individual and that this got him in trouble with the authorities on many occasions.

When his nation didn’t listen, the king of Babylon ensured his safety when he finally captured Jerusalem. What’s going on there? The dynamics of how God is working seem to be very complicated. God calls the king of Babylon His servant, even though he doesn’t seem to acknowledge Him. Then at another time in the book, Jeremiah goes to Egypt, even though Nebuchadnezzar had some personnel attending to him while he was in Jerusalem. What is he accomplishing in Egypt besides prophesying, and doesn’t that get him in trouble with Nebuchadnezzar? Is he trying to create a movement or revolution of some sort ?

And a side question, what happened to the Ark of the Covenant when the temple got destroyed? Did Jeremiah have any role in protecting it?

Michelangelo’s portrait of Jeremiah for the Sistine Chapel

Thank you for these questions about Jeremiah. I commend you for reading the book so thoughtfully. I’ll answer your first question in this post and the others in follow-up posts.

Jeremiah was a priest. That was his social status. However, he belonged to a group of priests who’d been forbidden to offer sacrifices in the temple and who’d been banished from Jerusalem to the city of Anathoth. Let me explain the background to that, and then I’ll describe its implications for Jeremiah’s status.

While all Israelite priests were descended from Aaron, there were actually two lines of priests. One line came from Aaron’s son Eleazar, and the other came from Aaron’s son Ithamar. We learn in the book of Samuel that a priest named Ahimelek, who was descended from Ithamar, was the priest at the tabernacle at the time when Saul was pursuing David and trying to kill him. Saul killed Ahimelek and his family because he thought they were helping David, but Ahimelek’s son Abiathar escaped and joined David. Abiathar stayed with David until Saul was killed in battle by the Philistines and David became king. Then David made him the high priest.

However, David also made a man named Zadok, who was descended from Eleazar, another high priest alongside Abiathar. This may have been to acknowledge both priestly lines. When David later had to flee from Jerusalem to escape an attempted coup by his son Absalom, these two men wanted to go with him, but he told them to stay in Jerusalem. This enabled their two sons to serve as his agents, carrying messages back and forth based on information the priests supplied. So both men proved their loyalty to David.

However, after David died, Abiathar joined a coup that David’s son Adonijah was attempting. Zadok, on the other hand, remained loyal to Solomon, who was David’s choice to succeed him as king. When Solomon claimed the throne, he told Abiathar, “You deserve to die, but I will not put you to death, because you carried the ark of the Sovereign Lord before my father David and shared all my father’s hardships.” However, he did tell him, “Go back to your fields in Anathoth.” That meant that Abiathar and his descendants would not be allowed to offer sacrifices in the temple any more.

The Bible says that when Solomon did this, it fulfilled a prophecy that God had spoken against their ancestor Eli when he did nothing to restrain his wicked sons. However, that very prophecy suggested that Eli’s descendants might still fulfill some other priestly functions and so be entitled to support from the contributions that were made to the temple. It may well be, therefore, that the priestly descendants of Ithamar who lived in Anathoth could have been seen in Jerusalem from time to time performing some of the same functions as the other priests.

This would have included Jeremiah. And so to return to the question of his social status, we might compare him to someone today who was a leader or former elected official of a national political party that was now out of power. He would not have a formal position, but he would still have a platform based on his own record of service and on the heritage and accomplishments of his party in the past. This would at least win him a hearing, and from that point it would be up to his own words to make an impact.

This would explain why Jeremiah was able to deliver one of his most controversial but influential sermons from within the temple itself. As a priest, he would have had access to the temple, even though his branch of priests wasn’t allowed to offer sacrifices there.

In the end, Jeremiah’s words, both spoken and written, seem to have created quite a sensation. Shemaiah, one of the Judeans who’d been taken into exile in Babylon, wrote back to Zephaniah, the high priest in Jerusalem, complaining about a letter that Jeremiah had written saying that the exile would be prolonged. Shemaiah told Zephaniah, “The Lord has appointed you priest . . . in charge of the house of the Lord; you should put any maniac who acts like a prophet into the stocks and neck-irons. So why have you not reprimanded Jeremiah from Anathoth, who poses as a prophet among you?

I think Shemaiah’s reply reveals a lot about Jeremiah’s perceived and actual social status. One the one hand, Shemaiah is implying that Zephaniah is a legitimate priest, while Jeremiah is just one of those castoffs “from Anathoth.” He’s also suggesting that Jeremiah is at most a priest, and that he’s only posing as a prophet. On the other hand, Zephaniah’s response to this letter aso shows what great respect Jeremiah commanded as he spoke from the platform he did have. Rather than putting Jeremiah in the stocks, he read Shemaiah’s letter to Jeremiah to see what he had to say about it. In reply, God gave Jeremiah a prophecy of doom against Shemaiah for being a false prophet.

One final thing we should note is that while being a priest from Anathoth gave Jeremiah something of a platform, the other priests there actually told him at one point, “Don’t prophesy in the name of the Lord or we’ll kill you ourselves.” In other words, when we use the platform we do have to speak God’s message to our own place and time, that platform itself may disown and threaten us. So ultimately it’s our faithfulness to God and our courage in speaking for him that give our words their ultimate impact.

We can trust God to preserve us for as long as we’re needed to speak for him when we’re faithful in this way. God revealed to Jeremiah that the people of Anathoth were plotting against his life, and so he was able to escape. This proved that Jeremiah was a genuine prophet!

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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