Words in Jeremiah

By Admin | Jeremiah

Jul 22
Words in Jeremiah:

Individual languages will often have a characteristic sound, even to people who cannot speak the language at all. However, many of the interesting characteristics of a language can only be seen by people who are expert in the language. Most of the Old Testament is written in Hebrew, and the book of Jeremiah is no exception. What can we learn about words in Jeremiah?

When Jeremiah is translated into English, many of the interesting little quirks of Hebrew are lost – or so say the experts. I am no expert in Hebrew and I need to make that clear: I cannot speak Hebrew; I cannot read Hebrew. So most of my comments today are based more on English translations of the book, and in this I am at the mercy of the translators.

Rising up early

An example of how translation can present Hebrew to us in different ways is shown in Jeremiah 7:25 which the English Standard Version (ESV) presents as:

From the day that your fathers
came out of the land of Egypt to this day,
I have persistently sent all my servants
the prophets to them, day after day.

Jeremiah 7:25 (ESV)

The word “persistently” is my target here. In the World English Bible (WEB) this verse reads:

Since the day that your fathers
came out of the land of Egypt to this day,
I have sent to you all my servants the prophets,
daily rising up early and sending them

Jeremiah 7:25 (WEB)

Instead of ‘persistently’ we read ‘rising up early’ in this translation, and I really like the picture. Imagine God getting up early every day to consider yet another way in which he can warn his people against the errors they are pursuing. What a picture of persistence! The latter translation might be considered by some to be a ‘more literal’ translation of the Hebrew, but the word ‘persistence’ is a good description of God’s attitude – without using the Hebrew expression which is a little foreign to us.

Nevertheless, I love the presentation of God’s commitment to his people in his ‘rising up early’ to send them yet another prophet. To me, the other translation lacks the personal touch and requires the reader to somehow find it for themselves.

Kidneys and hearts

On the other hand, translating ‘kidney’ as ‘heart’ and ‘heart’ as ‘mind’ in Jeremiah 11:20 seems to fit better with our current usage in English:

But, O Lord of hosts, who judges righteously,
who tests the heart and the mind,
let me see your vengeance upon them,
for to you have I committed my cause.

Jeremiah 11:20 (ESV)

Young’s Literal Translation of the same passage shows us more how we would read it in Hebrew:

And O Jehovah of Hosts, judging righteousness,
Trying reins [kidneys] and heart,
I do see Thy vengeance against them,
For unto Thee I have revealed my cause.

Jeremiah 11:20 (YLT)


This verse also highlights another word that is used very often in Jeremiah. It is the Hebrew word ‘Yahweh’ (written as ‘Jehovah’ in the YLT and ‘LORD’ in the ESV). ‘Yahweh’ is God’s name used in the Old Testament, and the Hebrew of Jeremiah uses it an amazing 712 times: that’s an average of more than 13 times in each of the 52 chapters!

Both God and Jeremiah seem to be making the point that these are not the words of a clever priest, but the words of God, spoken through a priest who was, admittedly, clever enough to pay attention to the words of God – even when most of his family would not do so, despite being priests themselves (Jeremiah 12:6; 2:8; 11:19-23; 26:7-8).

God’s prophecies against Judah speak often about attacks by foreign armies (or hosts), and he calls himself ‘the Lord of armies’ or ‘Yahweh of armies’ more than 70 times, reminding his nation that when the armies attack Judah, it is at the command of Yahweh. The Jews were not willing to accept this message from Jeremiah: they were certain that God would always protect them.

“God” is another common word in the book of Jeremiah (used 130 times), and sometimes (17 times) paired with “Yahweh” or “Lord” to form “Lord God” or “Lord Yahweh” or even “the Lord, Yahweh of hosts”.

The speaker and his audience

From whose point of view, then, is the book of Jeremiah written? The words ‘I,’ ‘me’ and ‘my’ are used more than 950 times, but most of the time they refer to God, not Jeremiah. God announces himself as God and then speaks personally to anyone who will listen. He also uses many different categories of people to make sure that everyone will know they are included in the warnings. Kings, princes, officials, priests and prophets are all frequently singled out as leaders who are responsible for the bad situation in the nation.

The people are also referred to often, but are likewise broken down into smaller groups so that all will know that they are included: men and women, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, young men and young women, sons and daughters, native-born and foreign visitors, servants, slaves, widows and orphans: no-one is left out. In total, the words defining such categories are used more than 1,000 times. No-one could (honestly) have said that God had not called for their attention and warned them.

Warfare and fear

The warnings were dire. The title of our series on the life of Jeremiah is “Terror on Every Side!” because that expression occurs five times and seems to sum up the threatening message of God. The word ‘terror’ also occurs in eleven other places in a book that presents an approaching horror, speaking frequently of coming war: the words fighting, battle, siege, attack, armies, warriors, soldiers, archers, horses, swords, bows, chariots, spears and javelins accumulate more than 150 references, averaging 3 in each chapter.

There are also another 500 uses of words describing the work of armies and the responses of the helpless people: destroyed, fire, disaster, punish, anger, burned, cry, famine, desolate, captivity, fear, pestilence, wrath, broken, devoured, perish, destruction, vengeance, plundered, taken prisoner, fury.

Hope and happiness?

Words of happiness in Jeremiah? Very few, and those few are often used to say that their happiness will be taken away. Words describing goodness? These are not very common either and are mostly used to describe God and his character – the character he wanted his people to copy.

However, there are passages of great hope in the book of Jeremiah: passages that talk about a coming king and the glory of the nation of Israel under the king.

Let’s finish with some of them:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch,
and he shall reign as king and deal wisely,
and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
In his days Judah will be saved,
and Israel will dwell securely.
And this is the name by which he will be called:
‘The Lord is our righteousness.’ ”

Jeremiah 23:5-6

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel
and the house of Judah.
In those days and at that time
I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David,
and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will dwell securely.
And this is the name by which it will be called:
‘The Lord is our righteousness.’ ”

Jeremiah 33:14-16

‘The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah:
“Have you not observed that these people are saying,
‘The Lord has rejected the two clans that he chose’?
Thus they have despised my people
so that they are no longer a nation in their sight.
Thus says the Lord:
If I have not established my covenant with day and night
and the fixed order of heaven and earth,
then I will reject the offspring of Jacob
and David my servant
and will not choose one of his offspring to rule
over the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
For I will restore their fortunes
and will have mercy on them.” ’

Jeremiah 33:23-26


See also

Key Words in Jeremiah (WITW)

Terror on Every Side!

This article is one of a series of articles on Jeremiah published as back-up material for the Bible-based fiction series Terror on Every Side!
[ More information | Purchase ]

Terror on Every Side! Volumes 1-6 Cover

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