What was Jeremiah doing in Egypt?

This post is the second in reply to a series of questions asked by someone who’s reading through the book of Jeremiah. The first post, about whether Jeremiah was a protester, is here.

Q. When Jeremiah’s nation didn’t listen to him, 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?

“Jeremiah foretells the conquest of Egypt.” (Artist unknown)

God had already determined to judge and punish the Judeans for their disobedience, particularly the wrongs that the nation did under King Manasseh. In Samuel-Kings, a narrative compiled over time by the prophets God sent to the people, when the Babylonians effectively subjugate Judea, it says, “Surely these things happened to Judah according to the Lord’s command, in order to remove them from his presence because of the sins of Manasseh and all he had done, including the shedding of innocent blood. For he had filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the Lord was not willing to forgive.”

Since God had already decided to punish the Judeans through the Babylonians, God sent Jeremiah with the message that they should accept vassal status (i.e. being subjugated) and the exile of their king and many of their nobles and artisans. God promised through Jeremiah that he would bring the exiles back in a generation or two. In the meantime, they were to accept that their home would be in Babylon, and they should make a new life for themselves there.

However, after initially becoming vassals of the Babylonians, the Judean kings then betrayed them and tried to make an alliance with the Egyptians. False prophets claimed that this would “break the yoke of the king of Babylon” and bring the exiles back right away. This led Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian emperor, to lead an army against Judea and besiege its cities, notably Jerusalem. Jeremiah urged the people to surrender peacefully, in keeping with his earlier messages. But they continued to resist, and ultimately the Babylonians defeated them, destroyed Jerusalem, and sent most of the rest of the people into exile.

However, since Jeremiah was known to have counseled peaceful surrender, Nebuchadnezzar didn’t regard him as an enemy. He gave his officers instructions to protect Jeremiah, provide for him, and allow him to return to his own home. Shortly after this Jeremiah was apparently rounded up  to be sent into exile anyway, but one of Nebuchadnezzar’s officials recognized him among the captives and set him free once more. I hope this answers the first part of your question, about why the Babylonians ensured Jeremiah’s safety.

The question of why God would call a pagan emperor his “servant” highlights how that term is used by the prophets with a variety of meanings. The usage here in Jeremiah is similar to that in Isaiah. On the one hand, the people of Israel and Judah are called God’s servants because God has chosen to use their nation to further his redemptive purposes in the world. God also refers frequently to “my servants the prophets” because he has sent them to bring his word to that people and call them back to their chosen role. But God also calls pagan emperors his “servants” (or something similar) because he is using them to fulfill his purposes. God calls Nebuchadnezzar his servant in Jeremiah, and in Isaiah he calls Cyrus “my shepherd” who will “accomplish all that I please.”

In the case of these emperors, the servants may not have known that they were actually serving God by carrying out his purposes. We learn in the book of Daniel that Nebuchadnezzar was actually quite defiant and resistant at first towards the God of Israel, until he was humbled and he acknowledged him. Maybe the take-home message is that God accomplishes his purposes through human agents, as I’ve said in other posts on this blog, and it’s best if we human agents seek to discover those purposes and cooperate with them intentionally!

As for what Jeremiah was doing in Egypt, he actually didn’t want to go there. As you noted, the Babylonians appointed a governor over the Judeans who were left in their land. But this governor was assassinated by some men who apparently wanted to keep resisting the Babylonians any way they could. After this, the remaining Judeans were afraid of reprisals, and they wanted to flee to Egypt for safety. But they asked Jeremiah about this first, promising to do whatever he said. When he told them they could stay safely where they were, they fled to Egypt anyway—and forced him to come with them! So Jeremiah ended up among people who were rebelling, but he wasn’t trying to do that personally.

As a result of this forced departure from Judea, Jeremiah’s final oracles come to us from Egypt. (The image above depicts one of those oracles.) There, as far as we know, he completed his career as a prophet and died. These final oracles continue to challenge the people’s disobedience and call them back to the worship of the true God.

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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