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The Book of Jeremiah

The Book of Jeremiah covers a period from about 622 BC to 585 BC. The Book does not recall Jeremiah’s deeds in chronological order. It seems to have been partly copied from a version maybe written by Jeremiah himself, copied by his secretary Baruch and notes added to maybe by Baruch himself.

Yahweh called Jeremiah to become a prophet under the reign of King Josiah. Jeremiah protested, but Yahweh commanded Jeremiah to become a man that saw in the future and through which Yahweh would speak.

Jeremiah urged Israel, the Northern Kingdom, to repent for its sins. Yahweh called Israel a disloyal but still upright people, compared with the utterly faithless Judah. Yahweh would send disasters from the north to destroy Israel to a desert. The whole country would be laid waste and Yahweh would annihilate its people. Yahweh told there was no one anymore in Jerusalem who did right and spoke the truth. Yahweh would not pardon Israel, and bring destruction. But even in this terrible prediction of horrors and destruction Yahweh reigned in his wrath and stated that that he would not completely annihilate Israel as a race. The people should serve aliens in a country not their own, but not perish all.

The prophecies of Jeremiah in the reign of Jehoiakim are texts about a series of worships ordered by Yahweh to the people of Israel, threats against the moral corruption of Judah and Zion, and laments of the Prophet over Israel’s perversity. Yahweh orders Jeremiah to repeat to the people the terms of the Covenant.

Yahweh spoke sometimes in parables to Jeremiah. God told the Prophet to buy a linen waistcloth, not to dip it in water, and to hide it in a hole in a rock near the Euphrates. A long time after, Yahweh ordered Jeremiah to fetch the waistcloth. The cloth was of course ruined. Yahweh said that in the same way he would ruin the pride of Jerusalem and of Judah, and he would destroy the people that refused to listen to his words. God told the Houses of Israel and Judah to cling to him like a waistcloth and warned that the people could easily be ruined like Jeremiah’s cloth.

In another parable Yahweh said that a jug could be filled with wine. Like a man could fill a jug, God could fill all the inhabitants of the country, everybody, with wine to drunkenness. Then Yahweh would smash them like jugs against each other and destroy them. Yahweh then gave an admonition against the impertinent Jerusalem and he threatened King Jehoiachim.

The Book of Jeremiah contains the prophecy of the great draught that happened in Judah and a description of the horrors of war that would befall on Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Yahweh also predicts in the book the return from exile and the ultimate conversion of all the nations.

Once, Jeremiah visited a potter and he saw a vessel the artisan was making came out wrong. The potter started all over again and shaped it right this time. Yahweh said that the House of Israel was like clay in his hands, which he could shape and destroy. Yahweh told Jeremiah that he would send disaster on Judah and he warned the people to turn their back to their evil ways.

Yahweh ordered Jeremiah to buy a potter’s jug, got to the Valley of Ben-Hinnom, and to address the Elders of Judah. Yahweh commanded Jeremiah to tell the Elders that he was displeased with their evil deeds. Yahweh would hand them over to their enemies and make the cities objects of horror. Then Jeremiah had to break the jug and tell the Elders that Yahweh would break the people and the cities just as one breaks a potter’s jug. When the chief of the police in the Temple of Yahweh heard of this, he struck Jeremiah and put him in the stocks, in a prison in a gate leading to the Temple. The next day however the man released Jeremiah. Jeremiah then predicted to this man that he would not be called Pashhur anymore but Terror-on-every-side because he would be handed over to terror with the whole of Judah.

In later prophecies, after the reign of Jehoiakim, King Zedekiah sent for Jeremiah to consult him on the war that Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, was making again on Judah. Jeremiah predicted that Yahweh would deliver Judah over into Babylon’s clutches and that Jerusalem would be burnt down. This part of the book of Jeremiah contains several such prophecies, against various kings: against Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiakin, against false prophets. But like in most of the prophecy writings, the Book also contains an explicit Messianic prediction. In this, Jeremiah says that Yahweh would gather the people from all the countries whereto he had scattered them, to bring them back and to multiply their numbers. Then there would be no fear anymore and no terrors.

Yahweh once gave a vision to Jeremiah. The vision happened after Nebuchadnezzar had led the King of Israel, Jeconiah, into exile. Set out in front of the Temple Jeremiah saw two baskets of figs. One basket contained excellent figs; the other contained very bad, spoilt figs. Yahweh told Jeremiah that like the good figs, Yahweh would concern himself with the welfare of the exiles of Judah. He said these exiles would be his people and he their God, for they would return to him with their heart. But for the bad figs, Yahweh would treat Zedekiah, king of Judah, and those who had remained in the country with horrors and disasters. He would send them sword, famine and plague until they had vanished from the land given to their ancestors.

Jeremiah prophesied the fall of all nations around Israel and Judah and also Jerusalem’s destruction. For this he was arrested and the priests and false prophets said that Jeremiah deserved to die. But Jeremiah continued to speak out for Yahweh so that the chief men and the people asked to spare Jeremiah since he spoke in the name of Yahweh. Another prophet, Uriah son of Shemaiah had said the same things. Uriah had fled to Egypt but he King Jehoiakim brought him back and killed him. Jeremiah had a protector in Ahiham son of Shephan, so ha was not handed over to the people to be killed.

Yahweh spoke through Jeremiah. Jeremiah said that it was Yahweh who had given over Judah, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Tyre and Sidon to bend under the yoke of Babylon. In that time a false prophet, Hananiah, declared that two years from hence Yahweh would bring back the treasuries carried off by the Babylonians. Hananiah also said that Jeconiah would become once more King of Judah. Jeremiah objected to this, saying that he, as well as other prophets, only predicted war, disaster and plagues for Judah. Jeremiah told that true prophets could be recognised only when Yahweh’s words came true. Jeremiah had set on a yoke in sign of the prophecy of Yahweh. Hananiah tore the yoke from the neck of Jeremiah and broke it. Jeremiah went away, but Yahweh ordered him to go back and to tell to Hananiah that only a wooden yoke had been broken to be replaced by an iron yoke. Yahweh said he would now lay an iron yoke on the nations to be enslavened by Nebuchadnezzar. Yahweh also told that Hananiah would die that same year, since he had preached rebellion against Yahweh. Jeremiah handed over the massage to Hananiah, who indeed died the same year.

Yahweh thus predicted that Israel and Judah would be laid waste. He also predicted that the exiles would return in the end and that in time Jerusalem would be rebuilt magnificently. This Jeremiah wrote in letters sent to the exiled. In these letters he expressed his and Yahweh’s hope on the faithful people of exile. Yahweh promised to keep the Jews only seventy years in Babylonian exile and promised that then they could return to find peace and a future. Prophets would help the exiles in Babylon to keep Yahweh’s laws and turn their backs on evil behaviour.

In the days of Jehoiakim, King of Judah, Jeremiah spoke out his prophecies of disaster for the people. Baruch, his secretary, noted them on scrolls and read them loudly to the chief men. The King was informed and he sent Jehudi to fetch the scrolls. Jehudi read the words of Jeremiah to the King and as the texts were read, Jehoiakim burnt the scrolls. Jeremiah heard of this and spoke out Yahweh’s condemnation of the King. Jehoiakim would be punished, killed, and his corpse thrown out to the heat of the day and the frost of the night. Baruch then copied once more all that Jeremiah had prophesied.

Nebuchadnezzar had made Zedekiah King of Judah. Zedekiah however resisted the Babylonians. Zedekiah send word to Jeremiah to ask the Prophet to intercede with Yahweh and ask for Yahweh’s help of Pharaoh’s advancing armies against Babylon, and against the Chaldaeans. But Jeremiah told the King that the Chaldaeans would not leave the country. At that time Jeremiah was arrested by Irijah son of Shelemiah, commander of the Benjamin Gate of Jerusalem. Jeremiah was beaten and thrown in an underground vault. Zedekiah then sent for Jeremiah, but Jeremiah repeated his prophecy. Babylon would continue to prevail over Judah. Zedekiah nevertheless gave Jeremiah to eat and confined him to the Court of the Guard of his palace. Shephatiah heard what Jeremiah had predicted. He went to King Zedekiah and proposed to have Jeremiah killed. King Zedekiah then gave Jeremiah into Shephatiah’s hands. They took Jeremiah and let him down with ropes into the storage-well in the Court of the Guard. Jeremiah sank into the mud of the well but there was no water in the well. A eunuch of the King’s court, Ebed-Melech, now appealed to Zedekiah about the fate of Jeremiah, who would surely starve in the well. The King heard the words of his eunuch and changed his mind. He allowed Ebed-Melech to haul Jeremiah out of the well. Zedekiah sent for Jeremiah and asked his advice on the conflict with Babylon. Jeremiah answered stubbornly that Yahweh wanted Judah’s submission and he urged Zedekiah to surrender. Nebuchadnezzar advanced on Jerusalem, laid siege to the city and soon breached its walls. Zedekiah and his court escaped in the dark but the Chaldaean army pursued the Jews, captured them and brought Zedekiah to Nebuchadnezzar. The King of Babylon slaughtered Zedekiah’s sons before his eyes, and put all the leading men of Judah to death. Nebuchadnezzar then put out Zedekiah’s eyes and carried off the King in chains to Babylon. The royal palace was burnt down. The prophecy of Jeremiah had come true and the men of Judah were taken in exile to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar ordered Jeremiah to be left alone, so the Prophet remained among the poorest people that stayed in Judah. Nebuzaradan, the commander of Nebuchadnezzar’s guard, proposed to Jeremiah to join the exiles, but the Prophet went to Mizpah and remained in the country.

The King of Babylon appointed Gedaliah son of Ahikam to governor of Judah. Gedaliah ruled out of Mizpah. The King of the Ammonites then sent a man, Ishmael son of Nethaniah to kill Gedaliah. Although Johanan son of Kareah, a military leader of Judah, warned the governor, Ishmael killed Gedaliah during a meal offered in his honour at the palace. Ishmael also killed many Judaeans who were with the governor. Ishmael threw the corpses in a large well. When Johanan heard of this, he mustered all his men and pursued Ishmael. But Ishmael had fled to the Ammonites. All the military leaders of Judah, led by Johanan, now assembled and were afraid of the revenge of Babylon. They consulted Jeremiah. Jeremiah spoke the message of Yahweh. Jeremiah urged Johanan to stay in Judah and not to be afraid of the King of Babylon. But of the Jews were to flee to Egypt, the sword would catch up with them there and they would be killed. Azariah son of Hoshaiah however claimed that Jeremiah was a liar and the other leaders also did not want to hear Jeremiah’s words. So all the remnant leaders of Judah went with their men to Egypt, to the town of Tahpanhes. Yahweh told Jeremiah to take some large stones and bury them in cement at the entrance of Pharaoh’s palace at Tahpanhes. Yahweh would defeat Egypt through his servant Nebuchadnezzar and the King of Babylon would set this throne upon Jeremiah’s stones. Jeremiah told this to the Judaeans in Egypt. He told them that Yahweh would bring destruction to them. The people however were already offering to other gods in Egypt, so they told Jeremiah they had no intention of going back to Judah. Jeremiah merely repeated that Pharaoh Hophra, king of Egypt, would be given over to Babylon and be killed.

The Book of Jeremiah then continues after the histories of the life of Jeremiah with his prophecies against the nations. It contains prophecies against Egypt, tells of the invasion of Egypt by the army of Babylon and of the defeat of the Egyptians at the battle of Carchemish. Jeremiah also prophesied against the Philistines, against Moab, Ammon Edom, the towns of Syria, against the Arab tribes and against Elam. All these people would be destroyed by Babylon and by the Chaldaean King. But Jeremiah also spoke out against this Babylon, predicting the capture of Babylon and the return of the people of Israel from the Chaldaean exile. The fall of Babylon was thus predicted by Jeremiah, as proclaimed by Yahweh. Yahweh’s vengeance would also come over Babylon in due time. The Babylonian god, Bel, would be smashed. Jeremiah sent Seraiah son of Neriah to Babylon with this message. Seraiah was Lord Chamberlain and Jeremiah told Seraiah to read out loud the prophecy on the fall of Babylon, then to tie a stone to the sheet and throw it in the Euphrates, saying, ‘so shall Babylon sink!’

The Book of Jeremiah ends with five long poetic lamentations of Jeremiah over the fall and destruction of Jerusalem, daughter of Zion.

Jeremiah lamenting over the Destruction of Jerusalem

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606-1669). Rijksmuseum – Amsterdam. 1630.

In 1630, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn was still in Leyden, where he was born. He was twenty-four years old and had started to learn to paint about eight years ago with Jacob Isaacsz van Swanenburgh. He stayed two years with this master, and then spent six months in the workshop of Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam. He had returned to Leyden and opened his own workshop there in 1625 with a friend, Jan Lievens. In 1628, at the end of the year, Constantijn Huygens, the secretary of Prince Frederik-Hendrik of the Netherlands came to Leyden and got interested in Rembrandt. Commissions would pour in from that moment. Rembrandt’s father died in 1630, the same year that he painted his ‘Jeremiah lamenting over the Destruction of Jerusalem’ and a little later, in 1631, he would move to and settle definitively in Amsterdam.

When Rembrandt was still young, in his early twenties, he painted in marvellous, rich, pure and bright colours. In a few pictures already he had started to reduce his palette and to darken the backgrounds of his pictures. ‘Jeremiah lamenting over the Destruction of Jerusalem’ is one of his pictures of the transition period from between his style of bright colours and his later style of painting. He still showed fine, bright colours and most remarkably, he used blue, but he darkened the background. Jeremiah is dressed in a blue cloak and robe. Pictures of Rembrandt in which he showed so much blue are rare. His blue colour on Jeremiah is however not the bright Gothic or Renaissance lapis-lazuli, pure blue hue, but a blue that turns to grey.

Jeremiah sits against a massive column of what seems to be the remains of the destroyed Temple. He sits in thoughts. He is sad, worried and tired. He wrinkles his forehead and supports his head with his left arm and hand. He sits barefooted among the remains of the treasure of the Temple of Jerusalem. He has saved golden cups and bowls, richly embroidered tapestries and has brought these to the caves in a basket. He saved a few rests of Jerusalem’s past glory. Nebuchadnezzar’s army enters the burning Jerusalem and Jeremiah can see the devastation through an opening in the ruins. The Prophet does however not even look at that scene. He knows what is happening there, because he had premonitions of the disasters. He had seen and foretold the destruction. He warned the Jews of the coming devastation ordered by Yahweh, the God of Israel that was in anger, but nobody truly listened to him.

Rembrandt van Rijn painted the scene of Jeremiah in fine hues. He showed Jeremiah in a sumptuous blue cloak, and he lined that cloak with yellow-white mink and he showed golden glimmers on Jeremiah’s chest. Blue and golden are almost complementary colours and match well and brightly. Then he contrasted the blue colour with the yellow, golden white of Jeremiah’s head and flesh. Jeremiah has white hair, a white beard and this brightness became the focal point of picture, also as it is the true subject: Jeremiah’s mind has predicted and seen the destruction of Jerusalem; now that same mind can only oversee the disaster and wait passively, sadly and also in anger and worry, now that the Jews are killed in the town and are dragged off in exile. Jeremiah’s head has sunk to his chest. He looks downward in shame and frustration and anger also, for although he warned the Jews, he has not been able to avoid the disaster that falls now on his town and Temple. Therefore Jeremiah also looks down at the treasure, but his eyes are not on these rests of past wealth he has been able to save. All is lost, so he sits alone in the ruins and the little gold will only help few in the passing of the Jewish nation and the end of its kingdom. How many times has Jeremiah said, ‘They did not pay attention, they did not listen’? Jeremiah warned that Yahweh had told, ‘Zion will become ploughland, Jerusalem a heap of rubble and the temple Mount a wooded height’. Jeremiah now sits in the rubble.

Rembrandt still shows Jeremiah’s courage and determination however: Jeremiah plied his right arm behind his back in poise of defence but also of defiance. Jeremiah has grown so old that he cannot lose patience anymore. He has seen so many horrors of war, has seen so many deprivations already, that now he will simply wait, alone, lamenting over the fate of Israel, but then he will come out of the ruins and join the Jews in exile. Rembrandt showed Jeremiah in thoughts, in a static poise that lasts, but we expect Jeremiah to move, to stand up and accompany the Jews in banishment. He has been thinking about the future anyway, which is why he saved some of the gold. So the gold is as well a symbol in this picture of the past greatness of Israel as of Jeremiah’s determination to continue his religion and mission with the Jews. Jeremiah laments, but like all Jews do when disasters come, he will stand up and live. The past belongs to Jeremiah, but he can take enough distance from that past to think of the future. He is not hopeless for he has faith in his God. And of course, he also had a premonition of the length of the exile and he knows that Yahweh as always will change his anger from Israel to its enemies and save his people after the punishment. Jeremiah would promise the recovery for Israel. He would send a letter to the exiles later, which started, ‘Build houses, settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce; marry and have sons and daughters; choose wives for your sons, find husbands for your daughters so that these can bear sons and daughters in their turn; you must increase and not decrease.’ And Jeremiah also told that Yahweh would intervene on their behalf after the seventy years granted to Babylon, and bring the Jews back to Jerusalem. After the Assyrian exile of the Northern Kingdom, which began around 721 BC, and the Babylonian exile that started in 586 BC, the Hebrews would return to their country around 520 BC.

Rembrandt continued the fine hues of Jeremiah into the red tapestry and the golden objects. The light shines on these objects too and the gold shimmers its last bright sparkles. The red tapestry hangs to the ground, carelessly thrown; it is the last symbol of the glory that was once the rich city of Jerusalem. Rembrandt detailed finely the parts he wanted to draw attention to. He detailed the head and left hand of Jeremiah, Jeremiah’s cloak and the treasure. He marvellously painted Jeremiah’s foot and brought light hue downwards also. He showed the delicate linings of Jeremiah’s cloak, so that the viewer would not miss the observation that once, Jeremiah had been a rich and venerated dignitary of Jerusalem. But Jeremiah now sits in ruins.

Rembrandt brought a very strong structure of composition in his painting, stronger and more obvious than in any previous painting. Jeremiah sits and leans against a solid column, but he sits in a slanting poise. Rembrandt composed his picture along the left diagonal. Jeremiah’s body is situated along this direction and above Jeremiah the line continues in the column. Rembrandt painted the lighted areas along the diagonal too. Jeremiah sits in full light and Rembrandt brought darkness to the left and right of the Prophet. He had a problem however. Blue does not suit well with brown and deep red. He could not apply this colour brown of the background to the left of the figure of the Prophet. The blue would have been modified and look duller than it already was. He solved the issue by painting a hue constituted of light green and yellow so that the blue of Jeremiah’s cloak would well contrast and be more vivid. Rembrandt could not use a pure blue on Jeremiah, for that would not well juxtapose to the green-yellow of the left. So he painted Jeremiah in blue-grey and enlivened that hue by a bright but rather non-determinate mix that went well with it. By painting the lighter area to the left of Jeremiah, he enhanced the strong structure of his composition along the diagonal. The effect was fine, at least to some tastes, but Rembrandt may well not have liked so much the result. He may have thought that now his structure of composition was too strong, too obvious, and he must have thus learned the difficulties of using blue together with the hues he preferred by now: brown, red, gold, white and their shades in different tones and intensities. By the composition along the diagonal however, Rembrandt discovered or sought the effect that painters often aspire to in religious paintings: he obtained a sense of elevation, of uplifting of the view, an epic effect of spirituality, which was often desired by painters of spiritual themes. In other pictures of Rembrandt, engravings and paintings, he would repeat compositions in which he amplified the meaning of a figure by placing a large column higher up and in the prolongation of his personage, making it grander to the viewer than it actually is in the picture. Elsewhere around Jeremiah, Rembrandt showed marvellous hues in rapid brushstrokes. Remark the golden shades of orange to brown on the column above Jeremiah and the borders of the tapestry at his feet. Nobody would are to state after such a painting that Rembrandt was not a remarkable colourist.

The ‘Jeremiah lamenting over the Destruction of Jerusalem’ is a rarity and important painting in the evolution of Rembrandt’s style. It is a picture of transition. The painting shows how Rembrandt could paint in marvellous colours and also using blue, in fine combinations and contrasting hues. It also shows some of the issues he had with this choice of hues against sombre backgrounds, which he could only save by bringing a green-yellow indistinct area of colours to the left of Jeremiah. That broke his background and looked artificial, not the colour of the cave ruins at all, even though directly lit. Blue was one of the hues he would now avoid in larger areas. He started in this painting to use less pure colours, diluting them to grey or brown. But his Jeremiah is a stunning painting that is impressive in the fine details with which Rembrandt worked on his figure, excellently imagined as the sad, old Prophet lamenting over the past glory symbolised in the golden treasure of the Temple. He left the rest of the picture without much detail, thus concentrating very forcefully the attention of the viewer on the essence of his subject.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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