Josiah was only eight years old when he became king over Judah, in 640 B.C., but he would become the greatest reformer of all the Jewish kings (2 Kings 23:25). Jeremiah considered himself “only a youth” (Jer. 1:6,7), but God set him over nations to destroy and establish kingdoms (Jer. 1:10). God would use these two men, who were totally dedicated to God, to transform the political map of the Middle East, from the reform in 622 B.C. until the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 or 587 B.C.
Josiah was the 16th generation of royal descendants of King David, but after 57 years of assimilating foreign religions and practices, under Manasseh and Amon, Jerusalem was known for the widespread killing of innocent people, mostly from the political abuse of power (2 Kings 21:16). After 18 years of Josiah’s reign, Jeremiah’s father Hilkiah, the high priest, rediscovered the old Jewish Law and reacted with public remorse and national reforms.
Josiah burned the implements of pagan worship (23:4, 11-14), tore down the houses of the “male cult prostitutes” (23:7), destroyed the pagan altar at Topheth so that parents could no longer burn their sons and daughters to death in a perverted form of worship, and sacrificed the priests of the northern kingdom high places on their own altars (23:20). Then he reinstituted the Passover feast, which had not been officially performed since before the time of David, four centuries earlier.
Jeremiah was from the town of Anathoth in the tribe of Benjamin, which was one of the cities belonging to the priestly Levites. That explains how his father was the high priest. God placed a special blessing on this family, for Jeremiah to be called before his birth (Jer. 1:5) and for Hilkiah to find the book of the law that had been hidden to everyone else. Since God first spoke to Jeremiah in 627 B.C. (Jer. 1:2), his preaching preceded Josiah’s reform by five years and probably contributed to Josiah’s repairs of the temple, which led to finding the law in the temple.
Bear in mind that we are talking about very ancient history. Rome was in its kingdom period and Greece was in its archaic period. Little to no writing came from them, and they are only known from their artifacts and from legend. Herodotus does not even record any dates before 480 B.C. The nations that mattered in the world were Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt, with little Judah in between. In 609 B.C., Pharaoh Neco, or Necho II, led a large army to help the Assyrians defend themselves against the Babylonians. Josiah sided with Babylon and confronted the Egyptian army at Megiddo. Whether or not there was a battle, Josiah was killed. Pharaoh Neco failed in his campaign, and Assyria was conquered by the Babylonians. The balance of power had shifted from Assyria and Egypt to Babylon.
In all of this, Jeremiah remains God’s narrator through five kings. His words are filled with a thousand ways of saying, “I told you not to do that.” The life styles that people tried to explain away as relativism and diversity, the prophet found unacceptable.
“[A]s many as your cities are your gods, O Judah” (Jer. 2:28).
“[Y]our own sword devoured your prophets like a ravening lion” (2:30).
“Yet my people have forgotten me days without number” (2:32).
We usually consider prophesies as words that predict; God sees them here as words that change nations. Consider again how God describes Jeremiah’s prophesies in his own words:
“Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.
See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to break down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.” (Jer. 1:10)
In other words, Jeremiah’s words caused Assyria, Egypt, Judah, and eventually Babylon to fall. Never underestimate what God can do with the life of a young person. God chided Jeremiah: “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth'” (1:7). With God, he was much more.