The Old Testament book of Jeremiah is the largest of its books. The Hebrew canon is divided into the Law, the Prophets and the Writings, with the Prophets divided among the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) and the Latter Prophets (the Major Prophets and Minor Prophets, excluding Lamentations and Daniel.) Jeremiah is one of the Major Prophet writings, designated so because of its length.
Jeremiah's writing is the most autobiographical of any of the prophetic books, so we know more about Jeremiah and his historical setting than any of the other prophetic writers. However, the book has also proved to be one of the most difficult to understand because of its close interaction with historical events. Fully understanding Jeremiah's writings necessitates knowledge of the events and circumstances of his life and times, resulting in its relative neglect when compared with other similar texts. Still, enough work has been done to ascertain the historical and cultural context of the work to allow for its contextual study.
Jeremiah was called by God to bring His message of His Sovereignty and grace to the people of Judah, and to herald their fall into apostasy and the judgment of God for their sin. He was called to ministry in 626 BC during the 13th year of the reign of King Josiah, preaching in Jerusalem until its fall in 586 BC. Jeremiah foretold the fall into apostasy under the kings who followed Josiah, and wept for Judah’s demise under its last egregiously apostate kings, Jehoahaz and Jehoiakim sons of Josiah and Jehoaikim's son Jehoiachin. Zedekiah, the brother of Jehoiakim, was later appointed to the throne by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon after taking King Jehoiachin, his family, and the Jerusalem leadership into captivity and sacking what was left of the temple.
Jeremiah rose to to preeminence as the spiritual leader of the people of Judah and is credited with holding them together as a nation during the exile. As Jeremiah presents the Word of God to Judah he also presents a detailed exposure of his own heart. We see Jeremiah's anguish at the state of Judah much like that of Hosea towards the earlier state of the apostate northern Israel. Spared from the resulting captivity under Nebuchadnezzar, Jeremiah ministered to the Jews who remained in Judah, and later among the final remnant who fled to Egypt.
Jeremiah 1:1-3. The words of Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, of the priests that were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin: 2To whom the word of the LORD came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. 3It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah, unto the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah the son of Josiah king of Judah, unto the carrying away of Jerusalem captive in the fifth month.
The relevant historical background for the biblical book of Jeremiah actually starts at the end of the reign of King David. Jeremiah was the son of Hilkiah who was in the line of Abaiathar, the priest closest to King David. At the end of David's reign, his son Adonijah attempted to forcefully take the throne with Abaiathar's blessing. When Adonijah failed and Solomon was made King, Solomon banished Abaiathar to the Levitical town of Anathoth in the tribe of Benjamin, a region far enough from Jerusalem to prevent the priest from interfering in the affairs of Jerusalem, but close enough that the priest could keep up with current events. Because of his attack against David's throne, Abaiathar fell out of favor with the people. The descendents of Abaiathar never would regain the respect and status that Abaiathar originally had. As far as the Jerusalem Jews were concerned, the priestly line of Abaiathar was of no spiritual consequence, and apparently Abaiathar's descendents agreed. Because of the nullification of the authority of Abaiathar’s line by the people, Jeremiah would have no reason to ever think that God would use him in any significant spiritual way. However, the workings of the gospel are always paradoxical when viewed in man's limited logic. Man's ways are never God's ways.
Jeremiah 4-5. Then the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, 5Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.
Written in the first person, we find the writings of Jeremiah intensely personal. He refers to the word of the LORD coming to "me." Despite the violent and apostate intrigue among the kings of Jerusalem, their conflict with God and with Judah's neighbors, Jeremiah's unswerving faith in God is evident in his reference to the LORD. When scripture capitalizes the name LORD, it is referring to the Hebrew acronym YHWH, which we often pronounce "Yahweh," or "Jehovah." The Hebrew text removed the vowels from the name of the LORD preventing one from saying His name and, in their interpretation, possibly disobeying the third commandment.
It is this verse that establishes the context of the book. The coming of the "Word of the LORD" is a literal formula for the appointment of a prophet by God. We find throughout scripture that God calls all of the faithful to a purposeful ministry, and it is God who does the calling. In this example we see a four distinct parts of that call, all initiated by God.
God "formed" Jeremiah. It is God who forms all of created life. It was God who set in place the process of conception that would, given only nutrition, result in the formation of a human being with an eternal soul.
God "knew" Jeremiah. God's eternal omniscience is shown in His words, how He "knew" Jeremiah before he was formed in the womb. This word for "knew" refers to an intimate, experiential, and complete knowledge. It also refers to the complete consummation of a relationship. God's relationship with Jeremiah was fully ordained and consummated before the beginning of time. It may be difficult for us to understand how God's call on every individual's life was established even before their birth. God had an eternal purpose for Jeremiah: that he would serve as a prophet to the nations.
God "sanctified" Jeremiah. God had set Jeremiah apart for His purpose even before his birth. This segment of scripture is characterized by a Hebrew poetic form that rhymes meaning instead of word sounds. This portion of the verse rhymes with the previous half of the verse, so no distinction can be made between "before I formed thee," and "before thou camest forth." The truth is simply that God knew and sanctified Jeremiah before he was even conceived.
God's call had a specific purpose for Jeremiah. Jeremiah was called by God to be a prophet to the nations. God has a purpose for all of the faithful, a purpose that will further the work of His kingdom on this earth. Many Christians may, for any number of rationalized reasons, ignore that call, and maintain a satisfaction with their salvation without truly searching for God's purpose in their lives.
The model we see in the call of Jeremiah is the same model as that which He uses in calling all people of faith to His service. Not all are called as prophets, and even the nature of the work of a prophet has changed since the resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, all of God's work that is done on earth is done through the power of the Holy Spirit, and much of that is done through the inspired work of faithful Christians. When God calls us to service, our response is often one of rejection. We may not consider ourselves to own the spiritual "stature" or ecumenical skill of a Jeremiah, for he was a great prophet, true? It would be instructive to read the next verse.
Jeremiah 1:6. Then said I, Ah, Lord GOD! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child.
Jeremiah's love for God is quite evident in his response as he uses the unusually complete name of "LORD GOD," adding the name, Adonai, the relational covenant name for the LORD. We are not sure of the exact nature of Jeremiah's sense of the recognition of God's call, whether it was a voice he heard, a vision he experienced, or simply an illumination of the Word of God as he studied the scriptures.
Jeremiah's response was also one of humility. When we truly understand the greatness of God and our inability to accomplish any good thing for Him on our own, we have no other response to Him than that of humility. The ancient Jews maintained a patriarchal culture where the elders were venerated as the wise, and their inviolable image of a wise prophet was that of a wizened and experienced old man. The school of prophets that existed at time tended to follow that same model with the young looking up to the older and more experienced priests as those who managed the "word of the LORD." The word rendered "child" has a broad range of meaning that can refer to the age of childhood or youth or to a state of utter inexperience. Regardless of Jermiah’s actual age when this call taook place, when Jeremiah looked at himself he did not see an image of what he perceived as the personage of a prophet. What God was asking of him sounded to him as far too grave a task than what he felt he was prepared for.
Though Jeremiah was submissive to the Lord, he was not submissive enough to immediately respond positively to God's calling. Jeremiah refers to himself as unable to accomplish the task to which he is called, citing his youthful state. Many scholars think that this calling took place on Jeremiah when he was in his late teens or early twenties when he was far too young to be respected and venerated by the people as a prophet of God. How inadequate would Jeremiah have felt for the task? Consequently, God's call upon Jeremiah is encouraging to all of us who feel inadequate to serve God in the manner of His calling.
Jeremiah 1:7-8. But the LORD said unto me, Say not, I am a child: for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak. 8Be not afraid of their faces: for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith the LORD.
It is encouraging to realize that, in addition to Jeremiah, the most venerated "saints" of the Old (and New) Testament writings were all quite average people who all felt fully inadequate to handle the God-sized tasks that they were called on to administer. We may be reminded of Moses who rejected God's call because he felt his speaking skills were inadequate. Timothy, when faced with the task of leading elders was told by Peter, "Let no one despise your youth." It is axiomatic that if one feels well-prepared for a God-sized task, they are most likely going forth on their own power and pride with no need for God, and their ministry will lack the power of God. Consequently, it is normal and appropriate that one would not feel adequate. However, that does not mean that we are not called, nor does it imply that we are to reject the call because of our own inabilities. When Joshua was called by God to take over leadership from Moses, God repeatedly spoke to him encouraging him to serve with courage and determination because He would always be with him. When we serve God, we do so appropriately only in His power, not our own. We can do so because of God's promise to always be with us. God promises that He will always provide the words to speak when we are called upon to do so. It is when we feel inadequate for the task and we step out on faith in obedience to that task that we please the God who calls us.
God provides a similar promise to Jeremiah. Jeremiah will not be speaking his own words; he will be speaking the words of God, and wherever he goes he will be sent by God to do so. As with Joshua, God told Jeremiah not to be afraid of what the people might do to him (their faces) because He would be there to deliver him from any persecution.
Again, all Christians are called by God to meaningful purpose in His kingdom on earth. Every individual has a unique array of talents, interests, skills, abilities, and gifts that God can empower for His purposes. We find in Jeremiah a tender heart and a deep compassion for the state of his nation. When God calls us to service it is not as much the skill set that He seeks, but rather the attitude of the heart. A heart that loves the Lord and seeks to fulfill His purpose is all that God needs. No manner of talent or skill will ever accomplish what God can do in an individual with a faithful heart.
What excuses do we use to reject God's call? What list of fears do we use to defend our unwillingness to step out in faith? Any excuses or rationalizations we can produce do not find support in scripture, for without fail God promises to empower those who step out in faith for Him. If we spend only a few moments speaking with those faithful ministers around us we will always find a consistent testimony that the faithful have always found themselves the most empowered and the most blessed when they stepped outside of their "comfort" zone. God's promise to empower faithful ministry is repeated in every incident of His call upon those that are recorded in scripture.
Jeremiah 1:9. Then the LORD put forth his hand, and touched my mouth. And the LORD said unto me, Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth.
When Moses balked at God's call, citing his own lack of eloquence, he took his brother Aaron to speak for him. As Moses' interaction with the Pharaoh developed, Moses took on more and more of the speaking, until only shortly afterward he had no need for Aaron’s intervention for him. When God touches the faithful servant, and the individual makes him/herself available to be used of God, He always empowers the skills of the individual. Jeremiah's concern was his lack of confidence in his own ability to speak and his conception of how he would be received by others. So, when God called Jeremiah, He "touched" Jeremiah's mouth. Ancient Hebrew anthropomorphisms (words that give God human physical features) are symbolic of God's nature. God's "touch" always refers to empowerment. God gave to Jeremiah a deep understanding of His word so that Jeremiah could preach it with confidence.
Jeremiah 1:10. See, I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant.
With Jeremiah empowered with the Word of the LORD, God then gives Jeremiah his specific marching orders. Often when we feel a desire to serve God we would like a clear statement from Him that illuminates the nature and content of His call upon us. As God opened Jeremiah's heart to understand His word, he also clarified the nature of the ministry to which Jeremiah was called. The remainder of this book, as well as the remainder of Jeremiah's ministry hinges on this verse. God called on Jeremiah in several areas:
God “set” Jeremiah over the nations and over the kingdoms. God's plan for leadership among people is not one of the exercise of their autocracy over one another. God did not give Jeremiah autocratic power over the nations. The model for faith-led leadership is one of servanthood. God set Jeremiah "over" the nations by making him a servant to the nations, a servant who brings them God's word in a time when they desperately need it. The message of God’s grace that Jeremiah is to bring will accomplish some very specific purposes:
To root out. When Jeremiah would bring God's word to the people the truth will expose the error of the nations. The term refers to digging up that which has been buried and exposing it to the open sunlight. Jeremiah would, through the preaching of God's word, expose the sins of the people.
To pull down. By declaring the truth to the people, the sin of their leadership will be exposed, and the authority that the people have given them will be nullified. The lofty, prideful, and pagan leadership will be brought down from their ill-held positions of spiritual authority. The metaphor is similar to the pulling down of lofty branches of a great, dark, tree that has been blocking the sun, and by so doing bringing in the sunlight of truth.
To destroy. The metaphor continues by taking those branches that have been pulled down, and placing them into the fire to be burned. Branches that are brought down but not destroyed can re-root and regrow, someday bringing back the darkness. However, by burning the branches, the tree can never again return. The secular and pagan political intrigue surrounding Jerusalem during Jeremiah's ministry would culminate in its total destruction with its leadership taken captive and its people disbursed. The land of Canaan would be left without any semblance of the old nation of Israel.
To throw down. The judgment of the nation of Israel would be completed as Jeremiah preached the truth to the people. They would not listen to Jeremiah and would ultimately lose all that they had been given by God: his fellowship and the land. All that would remain would be the promise to Abraham that through him the world would be blessed. The nation of Israel, remaining in the tribe of Judah, would be thrown down with only a small remnant of faithful to remain through which the promise to Abraham would be fulfilled.
To build. Not all of the ministry of Jeremiah would be one of judgment. Following the fall of the nation, Jeremiah's ministry would engage the remnant that remains. Those who would listen to the truth of God's word would serve as the remnant to preserve God's word as they look to the coming Messiah.
To plant. The metaphorical tree has been uprooted and destroyed. Now it will be time to plant, to start over from a new seed, a seed that has been conceived in the truth of God's word instead of the paganism and traditions of the old systems of behavior and belief.
We see in this declaration the very nature of Jeremiah's ministry. He would preach to the nations, exposing their folly, declaring their imminent demise and yet, upon the culmination of the disaster, he would remain to pick up the pieces and preserve God's word among the people.
Jeremiah 1:11-12. Moreover the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Jeremiah, what seest thou? And I said, I see a rod of an almond tree. 12Then said the LORD unto me, Thou hast well seen: for I will hasten my word to perform it.
It was common in the Old Testament experience for God's call upon an individual to be followed with one or more signs that are intended to encourage the one called and to form a seal of the covenant between God and the individual who has been called. Jeremiah receives two visions shortly following the call to ministry. It may be that Jeremiah was located in a place where he actually looked upon the objects of the vision, and God opened his heart to understand the message that God had for him through the illustration.
The first is the vision of the almond tree. The almond tree was known for being one of the first trees to bloom in the springtime. The name of the tree became to refer to an awakening from the slumber of winter. The prophets had already prophesied the destruction of Judah, and the vision of the almond tree is an indication that the judgment is imminent. God will perform it, and Jeremiah will be there to witness it as he serves as the spiritual leader who will take the faithful people through it.
Jeremiah 1:13-15. And the word of the LORD came unto me the second time, saying, What seest thou? And I said, I see a seething pot; and the face thereof is toward the north. 14Then the LORD said unto me, Out of the north an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land. 15For, lo, I will call all the families of the kingdoms of the north, saith the LORD; and they shall come, and they shall set every one his throne at the entering of the gates of Jerusalem, and against all the walls thereof round about, and against all the cities of Judah.
The first vision refers to the imminence of the judgment and the second to its nature. When a "boiling pot" tips and its contents are poured out, the result is disastrous. The scalding water inflicts unbearable pain and injury on those who are in its way. The face of the pot is toward the North, so it is tipping toward the south. That is, out of the north, like the scalding water from the pot will come the pouring out of God's judgment. It will come from the "families of the kingdoms" of the north. Though the northern nation of Assyria had taken the northern nation of Israel captive over a hundred years prior, by this time it is Babylon who controls the region. The attack from Babylon would not be in the form of a march from the southeast, but rather would come from the north where Nebuchadnezzar would form the combination of his forces and of those nations he had conquered as he would finally and completely overwhelm the nation. Unlike other attacks that had come against Jerusalem, this attack would be engaged against all of Judah.
We might also note that Jeremiah utilizes a great deal of symbolism in his writing, and the statement “from the North” most likely does not refer as much to a compass point as it refers to a “position of worldly strength.” Just as the compass points in the direction of the greatest magnetic attraction, attention can be easily drawn toward that singular threatening neighbor that intimidates from a position of strength. Assyria’s influence was virtually destroyed following a siege of Jerusalem under Sennacherib, allowing Babylon to become the intimidating force in the region. Just as a compass points North, this prophecy points to Babylon.
Jeremiah 1:16. And I will utter my judgments against them touching all their wickedness, who have forsaken me, and have burned incense unto other gods, and worshipped the works of their own hands.
As the nation of Judah experiences their overwhelming and seemingly impossible destruction, the purpose behind that destruction will not go unheeded. The people will know that the promised land will be theirs no more because of their egregious sins against God. The wickedness of the people is exposed as three specific, but similar, sins:
The people have forsaken God. As the children of Israel, given the Law and the word of the prophets, they had been given the full truth of God's purpose for them. However, attracted by the immediate promise of worldly sensations, the people turned their back on God in order to immerse themselves in the sinful activities of this pagan world.
The people burned incense to other gods. They rejected God as the One true God and turned to others. The pagan gods they turned to were gods of human creation, gods that provided for them the explanation of many of the misunderstood properties of the world. The pagan cults gave spiritual authority to a pantheon of imaginary gods in order to explain the events of their world, ignoring the True and Perfect God who created and sustained all of them.
The people worshipped the works of their own hands. They gave authority to physical objects, creations of man's artwork and handiwork. The pagan world culture today is unchanged from the ancient near-east. People still turn to pagan gods and to fabricated icons. However, the Jews should have known better, and likewise today, Christians should know better. It is easy to take our eyes off of the Lord and to start to look for answers from other authorities, and to venerate created things. God often takes the backseat as we seize control of the faith and make the decisions of the church, only to occasionally glance in the rear-view mirror to see if God is still there.
Jeremiah 17. Thou therefore gird up thy loins, and arise, and speak unto them all that I command thee: be not dismayed at their faces, lest I confound thee before them.
We often see the metaphorical command to "gird up thy loins." The wardrobe of the ancients included a robe that would keep the heat of the sun and the dust off of them as they moved around this arid region. Though the robe served its purpose well, it was not appropriate garb for battle, as one cannot run with a robe on. Prior to the sprint a man would reach down and grab the back hem of the robe, pull it up between his knees, and tuck it in the front of the waistband. Now, the robe takes the form of baggy shorts, and it is possible to run without being encumbered by it. To "gird up thy loins" is the English transliteration of a Hebrew idiom that refers to the act of preparing for the sprint. Jeremiah is to set aside those things that encumber him as he arises and goes on to the mission to which he is called.
Paul often described the Christian experience in similar terms as he would be "forgetting what is behind" or setting down that which would encumber him as he "presses toward the mark" of the high calling of Jesus Christ. We are often encumbered by a litany of distractions that would hold us back from following God's call our our lives. We use those distractions as excuses to rationalize away any move that would take us outside of our own comfort zone. The call from God is to "gird up our loins" and become prepared to step out in the ministry to which he has called us.
Jeremiah 18-19. For, behold, I have made thee this day a defenced city, and an iron pillar, and brazen walls against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, against the princes thereof, against the priests thereof, and against the people of the land. 19And they shall fight against thee; but they shall not prevail against thee; for I am with thee, saith the LORD, to deliver thee.
Jeremiah was not facing the daunting task of this confrontational ministry alone. God promised that he would establish in Jeremiah a strength that is characterized like a defended city (that can not be overrun), an iron pillar (that cannot be knocked down), and brazen walls (which cannot be scaled and breached). When God called Jeremiah to the task He promised to him the protection he would need. Jeremiah would not have to fear being overcome by the kings, the princes, the priests, or the people of the land against whom God's judgment was about to fall. Likewise God's promise is just as meaningful for us as we step outside of our own comfort zone and serve Him.
Several years ago while on a mission in southern Belarus we entered an area that had been radiated by the Chernobyl accident. One of my colleagues carried a dosimeter that recorded the amount of absorbed radiation and notified him of when he must leave the area. He was clearly concerned about the danger of serving in this region. He was perplexed when I told him that God would protect us from irradiation. My statement was that "God did not call me here to get fried. He will protect us." Trying to tell me I did not understand the surety of radiation exposure, I did not have the heart to tell him that I had spent many years training nuclear operators of the trivial nuances of nuclear power. I am very familiar with its properties. At the close of our ministry, as we were heading back toward the safety of the northern region he was very quiet concerning the issue. Finally, when be broke the silence he surrendered the fact that during our stay his dosimeter had not registered any radiation at all.
That experience served to drive home God's promise of protection upon those who serve Him. When God calls us to serve Him, it is rarely in an environment that is overtly dangerous. We are simply called first to serve him where we are. The fears and rationalizations that we promote to resist God's call are simply overwhelmed by God's promise to give us what we will need to serve Him, and His promise to protect us as we do.
I have sometimes been criticized for "coming on strong" when engaged in ministry. I have always found that quite amazing when I consider that I have little skill and little of the "formal" training that many think empowers ministry. I am only encouraged by God's promise to those like Joshua who God called to serve with courage and determination, and like Jeremiah who God called out of his youth and inexperience, and like shy Gideon who while still in hiding was addressed by the messenger of the Lord as "mighty Warrior."
God has always use "regular" people to accomplish His purposes, simply because all people are flawed by their own penchant for sin. However, God promises forgiveness, empowerment, and direction to those who will surrender their hearts and lives to Him. Then, with a surrendered heart, God can work wonders.