These chapters record Jeremiah’s experiences following the fall of Jerusalem. The sympathetic reader hopes for the prophet’s final days to be brighter than the former, but the rebellion of the remnant in Judah was so dark that Jeremiah’s ministry only became more difficult with time. The irony of the matter is that Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar treated Jeremiah with more reverence than the people of Judah had given their prophet.
The flow of Jeremiah 40-45 can be understood according to Jeremiah’s geographical location. In Judah, Jeremiah prophesied that the people should stay in the land despite the Ammonite and Babylonian threats (Jer 40:1-43:7). Jeremiah’s favored status with the Babylonians allowed him to stay in the land of Judah and support Gedaliah, the governor Nebuchadnezzar had appointed to watch over the ruined and poverty-stricken folk who remained (Jer 40:1-6). The appointment of Gedaliah prompted many of Judah’s military commanders—and others who had scattered when Nebuchadnezzar came against Jerusalem—to return and live in subjection to Babylon under Gedaliah’s rule (Jer 40:7-12). Thinking their future in the land of Judah all but lost due to the potential Babylonian and Ammonite reactions to Ishmael’s assassination of Gedaliah, the group decided to head for refuge in Egypt (Jer 41:18). Jeremiah warned them, “If you are firmly resolved to go to Egypt and live there for a while, then the sword you fear will overtake you there in the land of Egypt, and the famine you are worried about will follow on your heels there to Egypt, and you will die there” (42:15b-16). The people rejected Jeremiah’s word and headed south (Jer 43:1-7).
In Egypt, Jeremiah prophesied the destruction of the remnant because of their idolatry (Jer 43:8-45:5). Tahpanhes was a settlement on the Egyptian frontier; when Jeremiah and the remnant arrived there, the Lord told his prophet to set up some stones in Pharaoh’s local palace as a marker for the throne of Nebuchadnezzar—who would soon arrive to conquer Egypt (Jer 43:8-13)! Just as the Lord had disciplined the rebellion of His people in the Promised Land, so He would discipline His people who rebelled by fleeing for refuge in Egypt. Jeremiah spoke the word of the Lord to the people, “Why are you doing such great harm to yourselves?…You are provoking Me to anger by the work of your hands. You are burning incense to other gods in the land of Egypt where you have to live for a while” (Jer 44:7a, 8a). The rebellious character of the remnant had not changed; just as they committed themselves to idolatry in Judah—and “had enough food and good things and saw no disaster” (Jer 44:17)—they thought idolatry in Egypt would provide them the greatest pleasures of the land. Jeremiah saw things differently. He prophesied, “Because you burned incense and sinned against the LORD and didn’t obey the LORD’s voice and didn’t walk in His law, His statutes, and His testimonies, this disaster has come to you” (Jer 44:23).
Jeremiah chastised those that had fled to Egypt because they were committing idolatry there just as they had in Judah. If they continued to conform to the idols of the nations, Jeremiah warned his readers, the remnant of Abraham’s would cease to exist. Since the time when Israel entered the land and built the temple, the Lord had sent prophets like Jeremiah to remind the people of Israel that they enjoyed a special place in His plan and needed to reflect their relationship with Him in every aspect of life. But the people refused to listen to the prophets—despite the disasters the Lord sent upon His people just as those prophets had predicted (Jer 44:1-6). Jeremiah’s sermon to those in Egypt (ch. 44) contributes to the storyline of Scripture by providing a framework for understanding Jesus’ teaching as He drew near to Jerusalem and the cross. Just days before He was crucified, Jesus told the Parable of the Vineyard Owner (Matt 21:33-43//Mark 12:1-12//Luke 20:9-19) to make His point. The Lord had sent prophets like Jeremiah time and again, intending to reap a harvest of righteousness from His people. But Israel rejected the prophets and killed the son of the vineyard owner. Just as the kings of Jeremiah’s day seized the nation only to have the Lord take it from them, so too the Jewish leadership of Jesus’ day saw the Romans come and take away their place and their nation (John 11:45-54).