Jeremiah was one of the Four Major Prophets of Israel and he lived in the Kingdom of Judah. God called him to be a prophet during the reign of King Josiah and his ministry lasted around 40 years. He was from a priestly family but he never married.
At the royal court in Jerusalem, he campaigned for religious reform with five of Judah’s kings. He foresaw and witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army in 587 BC. Jeremiah warned the people that after the city was captured, they would have to spend seventy years exiled in Babylon.
And that is exactly what happened. Just before the city fell, Jeremiah’s secretary Baruch helped him to write down his visions and prophecies (Jeremiah 36:1-32). After the destruction of Jerusalem, Jeremiah lived on in Egypt for a number of years. Near Mount Sinai, he hid the Ark of the Covenant (2 Maccabees 2:1-8).
Jeremiah’s book contains a mix of material – poetry, sermons, prophecies, songs and historical accounts. It starts by describing his call and mission, then includes his prophecies about the upcoming fall of Jerusalem. The book ends with a series of prophecies for the Jews in Egypt and about ten other nations in the Middle East.
The prophet was a determined man. God made him “a fortified wall of bronze” to withstand opposition (15:20-21). Despite being a public laughing-stock, he felt a burning desire inside to preach in God’s name (20:7-9). As a sign of his deep faith in God’s promise that the Israelites would eventually return to the Promised Land, he even bought a field in his hometown (32:1-44).
Jeremiah is often known as ‘the weeping prophet’ because of his tears over the catastrophes facing Jerusalem. However, his messages of doom and gloom did not go down well among the people. There were attempts on his life, he was beaten, put in the stocks and even imprisoned during the reign of King Zedekiah.
Amid his messages of judgment, Jeremiah’s book does contain glimmers of hope. He spoke of the eventual return of the people from exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. After that, he said, God would make a new covenant with his people (31:1-40). He also wrote about the future coming of the Messiah (23:5-6).
This colourful mural of Jeremiah is found within the church of St Thomas of Canterbury and English Martyrs in St Leonards-on-Sea. Dating to 1908-1911, the image is by Nathaniel Westlake and is part of a wider scheme of biblical images that decorate the sanctuary.
Here a downcast Jeremiah holds a scroll containing words from chapter 31, verse 17 of his book, reflecting his mission of calling the people to repentance. Interestingly, this quotation is in English rather than the usual Latin. In this mural, Westlake followed the long-established tradition of representing the prophets with long beards and head coverings.
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Where to find this work of art
St Thomas of Canterbury and English Martyrs, St Leonards-on-Sea
Read the relevant passage