The book of Jeremiah is a large and complex work. This introduction can only briefly touch on some important items. Please consult the works listed at the end of this article and one of the many fine commentaries on Jeremiah.
The book of Jeremiah as we now have it, is the result of a long history of compilation of a variety of literary styles. As with other books of the bible, scholars do not believe that the prophet Jeremiah sat down and wrote this entire book at one time. Some of the material we have in the book of Jeremiah does come from the prophet himself (or his scribe). Some of the material in the book has been reworked and reinterpreted by later editors in an attempt to understand later historical events. The material in the book is not in chronological order.
While there does not appear to be an overall organization or structure to the book, we can identify three major sections. Each section is roughly chronologically ordered and each concludes with a reference to the scroll of 605 BCE dictated by Jeremiah to his scribe Baruch. There references are found in chapter 25,36 and 45. The book concludes with a set of “oracles against the nations” in chapters 46-51.
There are a variety of literary styles in Jeremiah. There is poetry, particularly oracles found in chapters 1-25 and 46-51. Oracles are used by other prophets and are messages from God for a particular audience. Another poetic style found in Jeremiah is lament or personal complaint. These share some characteristics with the Psalms of lament. As you read these consider if they the complaint of Jeremiah and tell us things about him or if they serve as a way to address larger concerns.
There are also prose sections in Jeremiah. There are narratives that tell us about Jeremiah and what he did. These are typically written in third person. These sections are not modern biography. In a modern biography the focus is on the life of the individual, but ancient biography is more concerned with the public life of the individual. See if you think that is how the biographical sections of Jeremiah function or if they are focused on telling the reader about larger concerns. There are also what we would call sermons preserved in the book.
Because the book of Jeremiah developed over a long period of time, it can be difficult to date some parts of it with accuracy. Also it appears that some sections were re written to reflect later events.
Jeremiah was originally written in Hebrew. But there is a Greek version (the Septuagint) also. There are significant differences between the Greek and Hebrew versions. The English version we have is based on the Hebrew text. The Greek text is shorter and has a different order to some sections. Also there are some differences within particular verses. Scholars have found portions in Hebrew of the Septuagint (Greek) text as well as the standard Hebrew text in the Dead Sea Scrolls. This may reflect the editorial work on the text that took place in Egypt (Septuagint) and in Palestine or Babylon (traditional Hebrew). This is an example of the complex history biblical texts can have. Never the less, overall the main points of the book are similar in both texts. So while the structure and compositional history of the text is complex, overall the book of Jeremiah reflects a deuteronomistic view of history. That is, that a strong fidelity to proper worship and behavior, a strong response to foreign gods, and the view that Israel’s trials and difficulties were the result of her lack of proper obedience and faith.
To understand the historical background of the book, re reading 2 Kings 21-25 will be helpful. Jeremiah lived during the time of the Judean king Josiah (640-609 BCE), the fall and destruction of Jerusalem, and the deportations into exile in Babylon. Some scholars think Jeremiah began his prophetic work after the death of Josiah, others think his work began in 637 BCE and continued until after the exile in 586 BCE.
You will recall that Josiah was the reformer king. He instituted religious reforms to end pagan worship and practices. He also worked for Judah’s independence from Assyria and the reunification of the nation with Jerusalem as its center. Josiah died in a military action against Egypt in 609 BCE. Egypt and Assyria were allies. But the decline of Assyria lead to the rise of Babylon as the regions superpower. By 605, Babylon was in control of the area and the kings of Judah who followed Josiah (Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah) were unable to resist the power of Babylon.
Jeremiah was born in the priestly clan of Abiathar in a town about three miles northeast of Jerusalem. Recall that Solomon had placed the Temple in the care of Zadok and his family. The descendants of Abiathar lived in rural areas. Those sites were shut down during the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah when worship was consolidated in the Temple.
As we read, notice how Jeremiah interacts with religious and political leaders. Notice what Jeremiah’s main concerns are. Are they similar to or different from Amos and some of the other prophets? Also keep in mind that Jeremiah was not the only prophet who was active in his time. And the various prophets were not of one mind. There were sharp differences between them. How are people to discern which prophet was the one to follow?
An Outline of Jeremiah (based on Overholt)
I. 1:1-25:38 Confronting the People with Words and Deeds
A. 1:1-3 Superscription
B. 1:4-19 Jeremiah’s Call
C. 2:1-4:4 Accusations and Exhortations
D. 4:5-6:30 An Enemy from the North
E. 7:1-15 The Temple Sermon
F. 7:16-8:3 Supplements to the Temple Sermon
G. 8:4-10:25 Coping with Catastrophe
H. 11:1-17 The Broken Covenant
I. 11:18-12:6 Jeremiah’s First Complaints
J. 12:7-17 God’s Response to Disaster
K.13:1-11 A Vision of Destruction
L. 13:12-27 More about Judah’s Fate
M. 14:1-15:9 Reflections on the People’s Lamentations
N. 15:10-17:27 Complaints and Interpretations
O.18:1-20:18 Narratives and Complaints
P. 21:1-23:8 The Fate of Kings and of the Monarchy
Q. 23:9-40 Against the Prophets
R.24:1-10 A Vision of Figs
S. 25:1-14 Confronting the People : A Summary
T. 25:15-38 God’s Wrath Against the Nations
II. 26:1-45:5 Narratives Concerning the Nation’s Fate
A. 26:1-24 Jeremiah’s Temple Sermon
B. 27:29:32 Prophecy and Politics
C.30:1-31:40 The Book of Consolation
D. 32:1-35:19 Tales of Life under Siege
E. 36:1-32 The Beginnings of the Book of Jeremiah
F. 37:1-44:30 The Fall of Judah and Its Aftermath in Palestine
G.45:1-5 An Oracle to Baruch
III. 46:1-51:64 Oracles Against the Nations
A. 46:1 Heading
B. 46:2-28 Against Egypt
C. 47:1-7 Against the Philistines
D. 48:1-47 Against Moab
E. 49:1-39 Against Ammon, Edom, Damascus, Kedar, Hazor, and Elam
F. 50:1-51:64 Against Babylon
G. 52:1-34 Historical Appendix
Here are several good sources to aid your reading.
Anderson, Bernhard W., Katheryn Pfister Darr, Understanding the Old Testament Abridged fourth Edition. (Upper Saddle River,New Jersey: Prentice Hall) 1998.
The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol 7, Keck, Leander E. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 2001.
Hutton, Rodney R. “Jeremiah” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version.Coogan, Michael D.; Brettler, Marc Z.; Perkins, Pheme; Newsom, Carol A. (2010-01-20) Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
Gold, Victor R., William Holladay, “Jeremiah” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, Metzger,Bruce M.;Murphy,Roland E., eds. (New York:Oxford University Press) 1994.
Overholt,Thomas W. “Jeremiah” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary Mays, James L. ed.(San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco) 2000.