The Letter of Jeremiah is a brief book found in the Apocrypha section of some Bibles. It purports to be a letter written by the prophet Jeremiah to the Jews who were about to be carried into exile in Babylon. However, most scholars believe it was composed between 300–100 BC, long after Jeremiah’s time.
The Letter warns against idolatry and exhorts the Jews to resist assimilation into Babylonian culture and religion. It emphasizes that idols are not gods at all, but lifeless and powerless human creations. The writer points out the absurdity of worshiping idols made of wood, gold, and silver. He mocks the foolishness of praying to images that cannot speak, walk, or act.
The key themes and messages of the Letter of Jeremiah include:
Idols are not gods
The Letter repeatedly stresses that idols have no life or power in them. They are merely human inventions made to represent false gods. The writer points out that carpenters, goldsmiths, and silversmiths fashion idols from materials they find around them – wood, metal, stone, etc. (Jeremiah 10:3-5). How can someone bow down and worship an object made by human hands from earthly elements? The idols are incapable of seeing, hearing, or doing anything (Jeremiah 10:5). They are carried around because they cannot walk. They cannot harm or help anyone (Jeremiah 10:5). The idols should be recognized as what they are – man-made icons with no ability to act as gods.
Idols cannot save
One of the key errors the Letter addresses is people trusting in idols to save or help them. The author points out the uselessness of crying out to idols for deliverance or healing or prosperity. He asks rhetorically, “Can they rescue you from trouble?” (Jeremiah 10:7). The implied answer is no – idols have no power to save. The writer warns the people not to put their hope in false gods carved out of perishable materials. He tells them the idols will eventually be burned up, unable to preserve themselves, much less their worshipers (Jeremiah 10:11). Only the eternal God of Israel can truly rescue and redeem.
God is the only true, living God
In contrast to dead idols, the Letter uplifts the greatness of the Lord God Most High. He is the one who made the heavens and earth by his mighty power (Jeremiah 10:11-12). He is the everlasting King and the only God who should be feared and honored. All other so-called gods will eventually perish, but the God of Israel endures forever (Jeremiah 10:11). The writer calls the people to place their faith in the all-powerful, eternal God who demands exclusive devotion. Worshiping false gods provokes God to anger and judgment.
Avoid assimilation into pagan culture
The exiles are warned not to blend in with their pagan neighbors in Babylon. Now that God has judged Judah’s idolatry, they must not fall into the same sins as the nations around them. The Letter tells them not to learn the ways of the Gentiles or be in awe of celestial signs that the Babylonians used for astrology and divination (Jeremiah 10:2). They must resist the strong cultural pull to conform and assimilate. The writer likely feared the Jews would let their distinctiveness erode through exposure to foreign customs. Maintaining spiritual purity was paramount.
Obey God’s law; judgment is coming
In keeping with other biblical prophets, the author of the Letter sought to turn the people back to obedience through warnings of judgment. He reminds them that forsaking God’s law led to the disaster of conquest and exile (Jeremiah 10:7-8). Continuing in idolatry and sin would bring further calamity. If they hope for restoration, they must faithfully follow God’s decrees and commands. Judgment is coming on the nations who worship false gods. But the Jews can avoid wrath by maintaining loyalty to the Lord who formed the earth by his power and wisdom (Jeremiah 10:12-13).
The Letter of Jeremiah is included as chapter 6 of the book of Baruch in the Apocrypha. But it also circulated as a separate document in ancient times.
There are two major recensions or editions of the text known from Greek and Latin manuscripts – a shorter version about 200 words shorter than a longer recension. The two differ somewhat in arrangement but contain mostly the same content.
The Letter is not part of the Hebrew Bible, but it is included in the Old Testament of Catholic and Orthodox Bibles. Protestant Bibles place it in the Apocrypha as valuable but non-canonical literature.
Relation to other biblical books
The Letter of Jeremiah reflects themes and content found in various prophetic books of the Old Testament:
– Denunciation of idolatry (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel)
– Mocking of worthless idols (Isaiah 44, Jeremiah 10, Habakkuk 2)
– Call to maintain ethnic/spiritual purity (Ezra, Nehemiah)
– Warning of divine judgment on foreign nations (Isaiah 13-23, Jeremiah 46-51, Ezekiel 25-32)
– Affirming God’s sovereignty over the earth (Isaiah 40-55)
Here are some notable verses from the Letter of Jeremiah that summarize its main emphases and teaching:
“Learn not the ways of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are false.” (Jeremiah 10:2-3a ESV)
“They cannot save themselves from rust and corrosion.” (Jeremiah 10:9b ESV)
“But the Lord is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King.” (Jeremiah 10:10a ESV)
“Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor is it in them to do good.” (Jeremiah 10:5 ESV)
Most scholars believe the Letter of Jeremiah comes from the post-exilic period, likely between 300-100 BC. Here is some background that sheds light on the setting:
– In 586 BC, the Babylonians conquered Judah, destroying Jerusalem and the Temple. Many Jews were exiled to Babylon.
– False prophets had encouraged idolatry and rebellion against Babylon, provoking God’s judgment (Jeremiah 27-29).
– Jeremiah warned the people about false prophets and encouraged submission to Babylon (Jeremiah 29).
-Many prophets had warned Judah against idolatry and injustice before the exile (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel). But they did not listen.
– During the exile some Jews were integrating into the pagan culture around them, practicing idolatry, astrology, etc.
– The Letter seeks to prevent assimilation by exhorting Jews to resist Babylonian religion and customs.
– After Persia conquered Babylon in 539 BC, Jews began to return to Judah and rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple.
– But some stayed in Mesopotamia where there was a continued alluring draw toward syncretism with surrounding pagan religions.
– The Letter likely originates from Mesopotamian Jews tempted to blend in and adopt idolatrous practices.
There are some aspects of the Letter of Jeremiah that are difficult to fully understand:
– It is challenging to reconcile the claim to be written by Jeremiah (6th century BC) when it clearly comes from a later era based on language, style, and references. Pseudepigraphal works were common in ancient Jewish literature.
– The specific background and audience of the Letter are not definitively known. Was it addressed to Jews in Babylon or those who had returned to Judah? Scholarly opinions vary.
– While it has a strong message against idolatry, the Letter does not have the covenantal emphasis and themes of redemption that characterize Jeremiah’s actual writings.
– The somewhat repetitive content has led some to theorize it may be comprised of excerpts from one or more larger works.
– The textual relationship between the Greek and Latin recensions remains unclear. Which version is older and more original?
– There are a number of unique words and phrases not found elsewhere in biblical literature.
– The literary form/genre is difficult to classify. It has features of a prophetic sermon but reads overall like a letter/epistle.
Theological and ethical themes
Here are some of the notable theological issues and ethical principles found in the Letter of Jeremiah:
– God’s uniqueness and incomparability to idols who are lifeless human creations.
– God’s eternal nature versus the perishable nature of false gods/idols.
– God as the all-powerful Creator in contrast to impotent idols.
– The inability of false gods to help/save compared to the Lord who judges and redeems.
– God’s exclusive claim to worship and allegiance.
– The sin of idolatry, astrology, and assimilating to pagan culture.
– Need for righteous living and just treatment of others.
– Obedience to God’s law and avoidance of sin to prevent judgment.
– Maintaining spiritual and ethnic identity in foreign/secular settings.
– Repentance message that judgment is coming if the people do not return to the Lord.
The Letter of Jeremiah does not seem to have profoundly influenced later Jewish or Christian thought. But here are a few ways it may have had an impact:
– Reinforced Jewish resistance to idolatry and assimilation under foreign domination during the intertestamental period.
– Shaped rabbinic approaches to exegeting biblical prophecy.
– Contributed to Catholic views of canonicity and the Apocrypha.
– Provided ammunition for early Protestant arguments against apocryphal books.
– Included in lists of Antilegomena – disputed books debated by the early church.
– Jerome argued it was not truly written by Jeremiah but included it in the Vulgate anyway due to usage.
– Text on idols not having breath/life used in opposition to idolatry during the Reformation.
Overall, while valued by some groups as scripture, the Letter of Jeremiah has not been hugely influential in theological development. But it provides an interesting example of Jewish apocalyptic thought during the intertestamental period.