This chapter of Jeremiah was written either just before or just after Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah—following the battle of Carchemish—and made Jehoiakim swear allegiance to him. Since mention is made of the "first year of Nebuchadnezzar," it seems most likely to refer to the period following his accession to the throne of Babylon in September of 605 B.C.—which occurred just after the invasion of Judah. If so, then Nebuchadnezzar basically came and went. It does not appear that he wrought any real damage on Judah at this time. Most likely, with Egypt in retreat, Jehoiakim switched allegiances rather quickly—giving up the temple treasures and prisoners mentioned in Daniel 1 without any resistance.
Yet Jeremiah views what has transpired as a turning point—the beginning of the fulfillment of what he has proclaimed at God's behest for 23 years, in conjunction with other prophets, since the beginning of his ministry (see Jeremiah 25:3). At that earlier time, he had proclaimed that destruction would come on Judah from "the north...all the families of the north" (Jeremiah 1:14-15). Now, he makes it clear that this refers to the Babylonian forces under Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 25:8-9).
Verses 11-14, relating to the "seventy years," have been a source of confusion to many. It seems to say that Babylon would fall in 70 years, and that this would be the same period as Judah's desolation. Jeremiah later writes to captives, telling them that God would cause them to return to the Promised Land "after seventy years are completed at Babylon" (Jeremiah 29:10). According to 2 Chronicles 36:20-23, the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. began the 70 years of desolation in fulfillment of Jeremiah's prophecy. Daniel and Zechariah apparently understood it this way too (Daniel 9:2; Zechariah 1:12).
So where is the difficulty? Jeremiah gave his prophecy around the time that the initial deportation of Jews (such as Daniel) occurred, in 605 B.C. But ancient Babylon fell to Cyrus of Persia in 539 B.C., just 66 years later. And in that first year of Cyrus, he issues a decree allowing the Jews to return to the Promised Land—again in fulfillment of Jeremiah's prophecy (Ezra 1:1). Nothing significant appears to have happened in 535 B.C., 70 years after Jeremiah gave this prophecy. Furthermore, it seems strange that punishment was supposedly to come on Babylon in 535 B.C. when the Babylonian Empire ended four years earlier, in 539 B.C.
How, then, do we resolve this? We must realize that Jeremiah was foretelling two distinct things, each lasting 70 years but not necessarily the same 70 years. They are linked together because the accomplishment of the one is necessary for the fulfillment of the other. Jeremiah 25:11 mentions: 1) the desolation of Judah; and 2) the duration of the Babylonian Empire. Verses 8-10 describe the first element. Verse 11 is the transitional verse, which includes both elements. And verses 12-14 amplify the second element, explaining that Babylon will be destroyed at the end of its imperial reign.
How long did the Babylonian Empire last? While the last pockets of Assyrian resistance were eliminated in the 605 B.C. Battle of Carchemish, the Assyrian Empire really came to an end with the fall of Haran to Babylonian-led forces in 609 B.C. (this was the defeat of the army that had fled Nineveh at its fall three years earlier in 612 B.C.). Starting in 609 B.C., Babylon turned from battling the Assyrians themselves to subduing all the former Assyrian territories, beginning with the land of Armenia. Thus, the Babylonian Empire began in 609 B.C. It then lasted 70 years, until the conquest of Cyrus in 539 B.C. So this 70-year period had already begun when Jeremiah prophesied. Notice that he didn't say otherwise.
The Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, including the temple of God, and took the bulk of the population captive in 586 B.C. This accomplished its desolation, which Jeremiah foretold. As mentioned, the fall of Babylon to Cyrus in 539 B.C. enabled the return of the Jews to the Promised Land. But the repopulation of the land took place over time. It is significant to note that 70 years from 586 B.C. brings us to 516 B.C., the time the temple reconstruction begun under Zerubbabel was completed. The mirth and gladness of verse 10—repeated from Jeremiah 7:34 and Jeremiah 16:9—found greatest expression during the annual festivals, which were observed in the presence of the temple. Thus, the restoration of the temple brought an end to the 70-year desolation Jeremiah prophesied. (See also Jeremiah 33:10-11, where the return of the voice of joy and gladness, and of bride and bridegroom, is associated with bringing "the sacrifice of praise into the house of the LORD.")
Judgment on the Nations
Moving on in chapter 25, notice the reference in verse 13 to prophecies against the nations recorded in the book of Jeremiah. It may simply refer to what follows beginning in verse 15. But it could also refer to chapters 46-51. Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary notes regarding Jeremiah 25:13: "It follows from this, that the prophecies against foreign nations (chs. 46-51) must have been already written. Hence LXX [the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures] inserts here those prophecies. But if they had followed immediately (vs. 13), there would have been no propriety in the observation in the verse. The very wording of the reference shows that they existed in some other part of the book, and not in the immediate context. It was in this very year, the fourth year of Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 36:1-2), that Jeremiah was directed to write in a regular book for the first time all that he had prophesied against Judah and foreign 'nations' from the beginning of his ministry. Probably, at a subsequent time, when he completed the whole work, including chs. 46-51, Jeremiah himself inserted the clause, 'all that is written in this book, which Jeremiah hath prophesied against all the nations.' The prophecies in question may have been repeated, as others in Jeremiah, more than once; so in the original smaller collection they may have stood in an earlier position; and in the fuller subsequent collection, in their later and present position."
Starting in Jeremiah 25:15 and continuing to the end of the chapter, God pronounces judgment on the nations. Notice that He begins with Jerusalem and Judah—"put first: for 'judgment begins at the house of God'; they being most guilty whose religious privileges are greatest (I Peter 4:17 [compare Ezekiel 9:6])" (JFB Commentary, note on Jeremiah 25:18). Yet in fairness, judgment is brought on all nations (see especially verse 29).
In verse 26, the name Sheshach refers to Babylon (see Jeremiah 51:41). Various explanations have been given for it. One is that it was written according to a code wherein the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is expressed by the last, etc., so that the word Sheshach would exactly correspond to Babel. However, it seems unnecessary to conceal the word Babel here since the word Babylon is given in close context in both places. Others translate the word as meaning "Bronze-Gated" or "House of a Prince." And there are still other explanations (see JFB, note on 25:26; Alfred Jones, "Sheshach," Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names, 1997). Perhaps the most likely meaning is "thy fine linen" (The KJV Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon,Strong No. 8347, on-line at bible.crosswalk.com/Lexicons/ Hebrew). This would seem to tie in with the description of end-time Babylon in Revelation 18:16: "that great city that was clothed in fine linen, purple, and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls."
The prophecy of judgment on the nations in Jeremiah 25 applied in part to what happened in ancient times. All of those mentioned in verses 17-25 fell to Babylon. Then, as in verse 26, Babylon fell after them. But this scenario will be repeated in the last days. Indeed, it is clear from verses 31-33 that a final fulfillment of this prophecy will come in the end time, when a large percentage of mankind will be destroyed during the Day of the Lord (compare Isaiah 66:16).