Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) commences this reading with a stern reminder to the House of David of the conditional nature of their relationship with Hashem (1 Melechim [Kings] 2:4):
“…‘If your sons pay close attention to their way, to walk before me in faithfulness with all their heart and with all their soul, you shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel.’”
Yirmiyahu’s message? Stop perverting justices and abusing power, or Hashem will destroy you (Yirmiyahu 22:2-9). And to demonstrate the seriousness of the matter, Yirmiyahu proceeds to prophecy against Yosiyahu’s son Shallum and Yehoyachim’s son Coniyahu (whose name is rendered elsewhere as “Yaconiyahu”).
The covenant between Hashem and Beit David was never intended to be unconditional. Hashem’s blessings never are. The agreement was that Beit David would be blessed so long as it was righteous. In the absence of such righteousness, Hashem has decided to put an end to the Davidic line.
Chapter 23 goes on to decry the corruption of the monarchy, priests, and prophets, who, like careless shepherds, lead the people astray by both word and deed. Despite the disaster to be visited on Yehudah for the crimes of these “shepherds”, Yehudah and Israel will both eventually see prosperity again after the fall of their Chaldean conquerors. When Cyrus the Great conquers Babylon (Chaldea is the oft referenced “kingdom to the north”), a scion of Beit David will arise. The later prophets, especially Haggai and Zechariah, and the writings of Ezra and Nehemiah attest to the accuracy of Yirmiyahu’s anticipation. The provincial governor of Yehudah and member of the Davidic line, Zerubavel, did indeed oversee the Nation’s climb to prosperity under Persian rule, out of oppression under Babylon.
Hashem also uses this opportunity to condemn false prophecy, and chapter 23:23-24 also reminds us that Hashem is always near to us:
Am I a God near at hand, saith the LORD, and not a God afar off?
Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? saith the LORD. Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the LORD.
Chapter 24 contains the vision of the figs. One basket is good and the other foul. This vision occurs shortly after Coniyahu’s removal to Babylon, as foretold in chapter 22. This most likely happened in 605, after the Chaldeans defeated Egyptian forces in the region, and Yosiyahu sent tribute to Babylon in hopes of favorable treatment. The good figs are the Yehudim who are the remnant that will eventually return to the Land. Their removal and exile will purify them and prepare them for their task of restoration under Persian rule. The bad figs are the nobles and priests and all those who have driven Yehudah’s iniquity and all those who have participated in idolatry. They are being preserved in the Land (in part) and scattered abroad in order to spread the shame of Yehudah.
Chapter 25 reiterates Yirmiyahu’s message in summary and in plain language. Because Yehudah has been continually warned to return to the Law by Yirmiyahu for 23 years and yet has not listened, Hashem will send Nebuchadnezzar to send Yehudah into captivity for 70 years (1 year for every year the warnings were ignored?). At the end of that time, Babylon will be destroyed, and all the other nations that Chaldea conquered will be punished according to their crimes.
Chapter 26 continues along similar lines. Yet again, Yehudah has been issued an ultimatum: repent or face destruction. This time, Yirmiyahu makes a comparison to Shiloh. If the Nation will not repent, Hashem will cause His House and Jerusalem to be destroyed, just as Shiloh was laid waste. Offended at the comparison, the priests and prophets have Yirmiyahu arrested for false prophecy–a capital offense. But the ministers (sometimes translated as princes) who make the arrest urge a judicious approach to the charge. Yirmiyahu haKohen is the son of the eminent high priest Hilkiyahu and brother to the current high priest. His father raised the late king Yosiyahu, so Yirmiyahu would have had close ties in the royal court. Most important, though, is the point made by Yirmiyahu himself: he has served as a prophet for 23 years, and in that time, some of his prophecies have come to pass. Why would one of the more powerful men in the kingdom, from the most prestigious family, who has undeniably delivered the word of Hashem suddenly turn to false prophecy? A presumption of innocence is the only reasonable reaction.
What follows is one of the most important pieces of information that has come down to us about the nature of prophecy:
The elders of the community argue in favor of Yirmiyahu, citing that Micah’s prophecy against Jerusalem was delivered to Hiskiyahu, who repented and reformed, thus averting disaster. That means that, by the time of Yirmiyahu, Micah’s prophecies had been averted, and aversion of prophecy is a form of fulfillment. The elders of Yehudah considered prophecy to be for a near time to them, something that could be fulfilled or proven false in short order.
It is also important that the man who took custody of Yirmiyahu after his arrest was Ahikam the son of Shaphan. Shaphan was the royal secretary under Yosiyahu and was responsible for the repairs to the Temple and for bringing the holy scroll from Hilkiyahu to the king (2 Melechim 22). Ahikam himself was one of the five who inquired of the prophetess Huldah as to the provenence of the scroll (2 Melechim 22), and Ahikam’s son would go on to become a provincial governor of Yehudah under Chaldean authority (2 Melechim 25). Ahikam and his brothers and descendants will continue to play important roles in the story of Yehudah all the way to the Persian period.
Chapter 27 covers the transition from the reign of Yehoyakim to the Babylonian installation of his younger brother, entitled Zedekiyahu. As the Egyptians and Chaldeans had squabbled over Yehudah and it’s neighbors in the region, Yehoyakim had tried to placate both powers as each had its turn with the upper hand. When Nebuchadnezzar established himself in the region, though, Yehoyakim found out the hard way that he who is a friend to all will find he has none for a friend, and so was tossed out in favor of the younger brother Nebuchadnezzar thought he could control. Zedekiyahu promptly paid tribute to Babylong hoping to keep the imperial army away from Yehudah, but was sadly mistaken. Yirmiyahu, during this time warns the neighboring kingdoms of Nebuchadnezzar’s intentions and advises the new king to surrender to Babylonian authority. Enough has already been lost, and conquest by Chaldea is Hashem’s plan, better to accept the inevitable than to force a tragic, deadly siege of Jerusalem.
Chapter 28 is another example of Yirmiyahu confronting false prophets. His adversary in this case receives divine retribution for his crime and dies within a year of denouncing Yirmiyahu, interestingly, in the seventh month (one must wonder if his death might have happened around Yom Kippur).
Finally, chapter 29 contains letters. The first bears instruction to those held captive in Babylon for how to endure the Exile. This letter involves veritable Who’s Who of the time: it is commissioned by Zedekiyahu, written by Yirmiyahu, delivered by Shaphan’s son Elasah and Gemariah ben Hilkiyahu (Yirmiyahu’s brother). No one would have been in any doubt of the authority of this message. And the message is for its recipients to live their lives in accordance with the Law to the best of their ability and to wait out the Exile patiently (29:4-7).
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
But whatever the Exiles do, they should not trust any of the prophets among them, as Hashem will not send any prophets in Babylon (29:8-9).
For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.
Meanwhile, some of the false prophets will be executed by Nebuchadnezzar, in part for their treachery against Yirmiyahu. And a letter is sent back to Yehudah, condemning Yirmiyahu, and Hashem returns a message through Yirmiyahu condemning the false prophet to barrenness.
The Chaldean Conquest is the end of the world, but in this crisis is opportunity for redemption.