The Book of Jeremiah grew out of the scroll that Baruch wrote down as the prophet dictated it. This began in the fourth year of Jehoiakim (Jer 36:2) and was completed and read before the king in his fifth year, in the ninth month (vv 9, 21, etc).
Apparently the prophets made written records of their predictions, and collected and kept those that were intended for permanent use. The Book of Ezekiel is the most regularly arranged of all the prophetic writings. It consists of two collec- tions, the first containing those predictions from the time before the destruction of Jerusalem (Ezek 1-24), and the second those after it (Ezek 25-48). Similarly Isaiah falls into two divisions, the one division consisting mainly of prophecies leading up to Sennacherib’s defeat (Isa 1-35), and — after the historical interlude (Isa 36-39) — the other division consisting of his “Servant” prophecies, or kingdom prophecies, after that great event (Isa 40-66).
In Jeremiah’s case, however, we have a different situation. When Jeremiah and Baruch first collected his prophecies, we are told that Jehoiakim’s scroll contained a record of “all the words I have spoken to you concerning Israel, Judah and all the other nations from the time I began speaking to you in the reign of Josiah till now”, a period of 23 years — from approximately 626 BC to 603 BC, Jehoiakim’s fifth year (Jer 36:2).
We know, however, that Jeremiah 21 was written some years later, in the reign of Zedekiah (597 BC to 586 BC). Furthermore, we can reasonably guess that Jeremiah 19 (with Jeremiah 20 as a sort of appendix) was just about the last of the Zedekiah collection. On this, R. Payne Smith writes, “Most appropriate would it [Jer 19; 20] have been for the closing prophecy of the woeful scroll: for under the type of a potter’s vessel crushed into worthless fragments the prophet proclaimed before ‘the ancients of the people and the ancients of the priests’ in terms of unflinching severity the final doom of the kingdom of Judah” (Speaker’s Commentary, Jeremiah).
Smith also writes, “An attentive perusal of Jeremiah 13 makes it more than prob- able that the prophecy of the linen girdle belongs to the very close of Jehoiakim’s reign [597 BC], containing as it does a message to Jehoiachin, his successor, and to the queen-mother, together with allusions to the march of the Chaldean army, which brought that monarch’s short period of power to so disastrous a conclusion.”
Furthermore, from Jeremiah 20 onward, all signs of any general arrangement vanish. Attempts have been made to show that these later chapters are grouped together upon some sort of system, but a coherent and logical arrangement is difficult to achieve.
It may be that Jeremiah died in Egypt before he ever had an opportunity to put together a more chronologically arranged Book. Such a scenario is imagined by Payne Smith, again in Speaker’s Commentary: “And when the catastrophe had come, and city and temple lay in ruins, Jeremiah for the last time assayed [deter- mined] to arrange and publish his prophecies. All was over, the prophet’s work done, and he probably looked forward to a tranquil but sad old age in the house of Gedaliah, his friend and protector. His first business was to rescue his writings from destruction, no easy matter, for he himself, contrary to Nebuchadnezzar’s orders, had been loaded with chains, and dragged, with other captives, to Ramah (Jer 40:1-4)… When Nebuzaradan set him free, he had been spoiled [robbed] of everything but the few clothes wherewith he was clad. Whether any portion of his writings perished in the ruin of Jerusalem we know not: he rescued, however, those we now possess from destruction, but could do no more. Shortly afterwards Gedaliah was foully slain (Jer 41:2). The prophet was then forced to go into Egypt against his will (Jer 43:6)… and soon afterwards died, being, as Jerome asserts, stoned by the Jews at Tahpanhes.”
It may also be that, after Jeremiah’s death, his helper and friend Baruch did not feel free to attempt any better organization or arrangement of his prophecies. Smith adds: “Placed immediately before the prophecies relating to the Gentiles [Jer 46-51], we find one spoken to comfort Baruch for not receiving the gift of prophecy (Jer 45). And nothing is more likely than that, feeling the difference between himself and Jeremiah to be so vast (Jer 45:5), he would regard himself as destitute of the necessary authority for arranging his master’s memorials [i.e., writings], and would leave them as they were.”
When Jeremiah died, Baruch may only have had his master’s writings, such as they were, hastily gathered up on several different scrolls. If that were so, then we now have, in the Book of Jeremiah, those same prophecies in practically the same form as they came into Baruch’s care after the fall of Jerusalem.
We might have hoped for a more regular order of the chapters of the Book, but it does not exist now. We might ask, ‘Why didn’t the LORD give Baruch the Holy Spirit guidance to continue and finish Jeremiah’s work after the great prophet died?’ The only answer we have, based on Jeremiah 45, is that He simply did not.
We do learn something of value, however, if we think of this scenario. We learn that, no matter how difficult the circumstances, and no matter what struggles its human actors went through, God’s Word was kept intact and preserved until our day. The fact that it is preserved, while still bearing the marks of the trials and turmoil of the times, reminds us of another wonderful fact: the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth condescends to use the most feeble mortal “helpers”, laboring under the most frightful conditions, to preserve for us the inspired record of His thoughts and actions.
The slender thread of a barely discernible story, the details of which we can only guess, ties together this part of the LORD’s message. It is a story within a story. Through the mists of time we see the faithful Baruch scrambling to recover and
hang on to the scroll fragments while his world crumbles around him. Perhaps after his master’s death, he worked on in fear for his own life, never knowing how long he himself might be allowed to live. And then, when he had escaped with his life and at least some of the precious scrolls, he still felt himself (as Jeremiah 45 suggests) unqualified to arrange the scrolls in a more logical order. But what he felt able to do he did. He began making copies of what he had, just as they were gathered up and preserved by him, to send forth Jeremiah’s messages to communi- ties of believers who themselves were perhaps scattered and living in fear.
In such ways, God worked for good to those who were called to be His elect ones. In such ways, His precious Word has survived, and been preserved, for us.
George Booker (Austin Leander, TX)