Dr. William Moorehead writes at the end of the nineteenth century:
It was Jeremiah’s lot to prophesy at a time when all things in Judah were rushing down to the final and mournful catastrophe; when political excitement was at its height; when the worst passions swayed the various parties and the most fatal counsels prevailed. It was his to stand in the way over which his nation was rushing headlong to destruction; to make a heroic effort to arrest it and to turn it back; and to fail, and be compelled to step to one side and see his own people whom he loved with the tenderness of a woman plunge over the precipice into the wide, weltering ruin.[i]
Jeremiah was called to warn the people of his hour that God was about to address their sins. God in his grace had reached out to a people who refused to listen, but still He was speaking to them to draw them to Himself. Yet, knowing that they would ultimately harden their hearts, God also spoke words of encouragement because there would be a day after they experienced His discipline that they would be restored. The psalmist rejoiced in that amazing truth that even God’s disciplines were a mercy to bring about a change of heart and gives us a willingness to listen and obey Him as a result.
Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word.
You are good, and what you do is good, teach me your decrees.[ii]
Yet before that discipline in our personal, or at times in our nation’s life, what are the elements leading to that dreadful moment? What does a nation in decline look like?
It happens always that when a state becomes involved in difficulties, when its affairs are entangled and ruin threatens, the people arrange themselves into contending and hostile parties [There is polarization and deep divisions]. So it transpired in the closing days of the kingdom of Judah; much more so was it in the last years of Jerusalem in the first century of the Christian era. The nation split into fierce factions; each denounced the other as the chief cause of all their woes. Mutual distrust broke up families, divided friends, made a man’s enemies those of his own household. Everyone had to take heed to his neighbor and suspect his brother (Jeremiah 9:4; 12:6).[iii]
We see that people or nations do get to this place, as history repeatedly warns us. The more critical question is: How do God’s people get to a place where God is speaking and yet we become unwilling to listen? Why do we harden our hearts and refuse to hear what He is saying? The result is contention and continued disobedience to God. God desires to be heard despite the many voices supposedly speaking in His name. Confusion reigns. One of the things we learn from the book of Jeremiah is the authentication of God’s voice through His sanctioned prophet. Another way of saying this is to be able to distinguish the voice of the true prophet from the false. Here in chapter one we gain Jeremiah’s reason for why we should listen to his message. So, who was this man described by many as the weeping prophet? The book begins with a background and context in which we find Jeremiah fulfilling his ministry. “The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin (Jeremiah 1:1). Immediately we find that Jeremiah was from a priestly family living in the southern kingdom of Judah. Therefore, by lineage, Jeremiah was from the priestly line. Robert Davidson explains that “Anathoth [was] a small village of no importance a few miles north-east of Jerusalem; near enough for him to know what was going on in the big city…”[iv]
Other scholars share that the distance was negligible so that Jeremiah could see the city from his village. It seems that Jeremiah knew the proper role of the priests and yet in his writings he exposes the corruption in the priesthood. This was the very place where godliness and holiness was expected to be practiced and proclaimed, but it was all a sham.
Here in chapter 1, Jeremiah explains to us that God called him and the message he was proclaiming was God’s message. Tremper Longman relates:
While authorship is not an important issue in much of biblical and ancient Near Eastern literature, it is significant for the genre of prophecy. Prophets must be people who have had an encounter with God and been commissioned by him for their task. Thus, the identity and credentials of prophets are significant and often described in anticipation of their oracles.[v]
This is exactly what we read in the beginning of the book of Jeremiah.
The word of the LORD came to him in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah son of Amon King of Judah, and through the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, down to the fifth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah, when the people of Jerusalem went into exile.[vi]
Here we have a list of three kings, but he actually prophesied through the reigns of five kings though two of them Jehoahaz, who succeeded his father Josiah and reigned briefly for three months, and Jehoiachin, who was captured and deported to Babylon are not mentioned.
We see the origin of the Divine summons to ministry. ‘The word of the LORD came to him…’. Robert Davidson gives us an insight into the makings of a prophet of God.
There seems to be two basic ingredients in the making of a prophet in the Old Testament. 1) a situation of crisis in which the community has lost, or is in danger of losing, its way. Often it is a crisis whose meaning and challenge are not recognized either by the religious establishment or by the man in the street. 2) a personal experience in which a man finds himself gripped by God and commissioned to proclaim to the community a message which speaks to this crisis situation.[vii]
In the book of Jeremiah, we will hear the heart of God through a man that God designed for this very task. In chapter 1, we gain an introduction to both the man, the call and the message that God had entrusted to Jeremiah. This chapter is a call for us to listen carefully to what is about to be spoken. What can we learn from that hour of apostasy that will help us in this hour of crisis in which we are living in? How should we be responding? Do we have it right? Do we fully understand what God is doing in our lives at this time? Here we have three movements that reveal to us the nature of God’s work in our world.
THE FIRST MOVEMENT IN THE NATURE OF GOD’S WORK IS THE CALL OF GOD ON OUR LIVES
God works through people. What we discover is that God creates each person for a purpose. When we see our lives in the light of eternity past as well as in the present it empowers us to fulfill His will in the days ahead regardless of the difficulties.
The word of the LORD came to me, saying, Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.[viii]
A. God knows us before we are formed.
For those who have come to faith in Jesus Christ, we realize that we are witnesses both in word and deed to those around us. We must understand that each of us were created at this time for a purpose. Now specifically in Jeremiah’s case we see that he is a chosen vessel to convey a specific message to people in a specific context. His calling is to indicate the kind of message and authority by which he will speak to his generation. What we can learn from his calling is that like Jeremiah we are to look to God for vindication rather than popularity among our contemporaries. Also, like Jeremiah, we should not be at all surprised that there will be a measure of opposition and persecution. Jesus explains this in the beatitudes.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.[ix]
Andrew Dearborn brings out another profound application that we need to be reminded of in our time where we have lost the sense that we are God’s creation. Notice that it states that ‘before we were formed in our mother’s womb, God knew us, and set us apart for a specific purpose.
The account of God’s call of Jeremiah is also relevant to contemporary debates over abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide and the ‘value of human life. Let’s admit, of course, that the account of Jeremiah’s call is not intended initially as a polemic [argument] against abortion or euthanasia, nor does the text answer all the complicated questions facing modern societies over these and related issues.[x]
What it does show us is that this life is not ours to determine. We belong to God and we are here for a definite time and purpose. Dearborn goes on to state:
Jeremiah is known to God even before his conception, and his preparation for prophetic work begins before his birth. Thus even in the womb Jeremiah is valued. Furthermore, the account assumes that God is the author of Jeremiah’s life and the One who shapes his historical destiny in spite of his reluctance. These claims do function as powerful confessions that human life is God’s gift and subject to God’s discretion – more particularly, that the womb is the home of a person known to God.[xi]
Think about it, God designs us in his mind with all the specific ingredients that we are going to need to fulfill what He purposes for us. If we begin to see our lives this way, then when we walk in obedience to God, we will fulfill that amazing design. We rarely realize what life is about and our place in it until we have our own personal encounter with God. It is then that we respond to God’s calling in our lives.
B. God sets us apart.
God revealed to Jeremiah he was set apart for God’s purposes. The word ‘set apart,’ is the idea of what true holiness is all about.
The Hebrew word qadosh, holy, which lies behind the verb used here, is a word that points to God’s own nature, to that which makes him different from us; and it also describes anything or anyone who is particularly associated with God or set apart for his service.[xii]
This is exactly what God has done on our behalf as His people. Peter reminds us of this very truth in his first letter.
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
Once you were not a people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.[xiii]
Do we fully grasp the significance that we were designed by Him and for Him? God has created you and me with a definitive purpose in mind. We are here to glorify Him. We are here to honor and make him known by the kind of lives we live.
THE SECOND MOVEMENT IN THE NATURE OF GOD’S WORK IS THE RESPONSE TO GOD’S CALL
Often we feel overwhelmed by what God is asking of us. We find that we may struggle with feelings of inadequacy and insecurity which may keep us from moving forward. Here in Jeremiah’s call we see some of the same elements that Moses experienced at the burning bush. Both men felt overwhelmed and inadequate for what they were being asked to do. “‘Alas, Sovereign LORD,’ I said, ‘I do not know how to speak’ I am too young (Jeremiah 1:6).” Isn’t it true that we tend to focus on our inabilities and inexperience as a justifiable reason for disobeying what God is asking of us. Yet even though we are insufficient and inadequate for the task, which by the way is true for all of us, what we will discover is that what God is asking of us can only be done with Him working in and through us. The apostle Paul certainly felt the same way. Paul felt that the ministry entrusted to him was beyond his ability. He even stated that it is beyond human beings to do God’s work.
Who is equal to such a task?
Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God.[xiv]
Jeremiah now gives us the answer to our insufficiencies. In God’s answer to him, we find God’s answer to us.
But the LORD said to me, ‘Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,’ declares the LORD.[xv]
God told Jeremiah, that he would be with him. We can all be reassured that God’s presence will be with us. He is the answer to the challenges that lie before us. When Jesus commissioned His church to go and make disciples, He left us with an amazing promise. Too often we focus on the command, while it is the promise that encourages and empowers us for the task.
Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.[xvi]
Jesus said He would be with us right to the end. What more can we ask fo?. We are the people of God’s presence. God goes with us. We are not going alone.
B. God equips us for the task that lies before us.
“Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, ‘I have put my words in your mouth (Jeremiah 1:9).”
We see this same moment in the life of the prophet Isaiah when he realized his own unworthiness and sinfulness. God had the angel bring the live coal and touched his mouth to cleanse him.
Woe to me! I cried. I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the king, the Lord Almighty.
Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar.
With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.[xvii]
What is the most difficult area of our lives to tame? Where are so many of the problems are perpetrated in our relationships? James identifies the problem as a communication issue.
The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.[xviii]
Wow! Talk about strong language. Our mouths are a world of evil, an uncontrollable fire. He goes on to say that none of us can tame our mouths. “…but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison (James 3:8).” We need to come to God so that we are transformed and our words become life giving rather than filled with destruction and death that ends relationships, and leaves us empty and alone. We need a divine touch like Jeremiah and Isaiah so that our mouths will be under the control of God.
THE FINAL MOVEMENT IN THE NATURE OF GOD’S WORK IS UNDERSTANDING THE VISION AND ITS MEANING
There are general mandates that apply to all of us and then there are things that are specific to each of us individually. Some, God calls to care for children, others teach, some practice medicine, others work in the area of social justice. Some serve as assistant to others. Whatever gifts and capacities God has placed within us, all of us are designed by God to fulfill his will, not just vocationally but also in the way we live out our lives. Jeremiah was a spokesperson, a prophet with a message that his generation and each succeeding generation needed and continues to need and respond to.
I have put my words in your mouth [We desperately need to hear these words of God].
See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.[xix]
God wants to uproot the weeds in our lives, tear down that we have built that is keeping us from God’s plan and purposes for our lives. God wants to destroy in our lives what is destroying us and build into our lives what will build us up. There are new things to plant into our souls in order for us to become mature and a great benefit to those around us. There are also things we need to address, uproot, repent of and turn away from, otherwise they will destroy us and others.
Robert Davidson reminds us:
The prophets have some sharply critical things to say, but they are not by nature pessimists, nor do they enjoy preaching ‘hell-fire and damnation.’ They are realists. They know that before Israel can be set free to fulfill her destiny as the people of God in the world, there has got to be a clearing away of the debris of a misleading understanding of God. …False securities must be undermined before true faith can be nurtured. One of the things which marks off the true prophet from the false is that he never says ‘All is well’ when all is not well (6:14). But he never destroys for the sake of destroying: he destroys in order to prepare the way for rebuilding.[xx]
In other words, God is in the remodeling business. How many know that when you are remodeling it is a dirty business at first. You have to demolish the old in order to rebuild the new. Jeremiah is then given two visions that are meant to strengthen him for the task that lies before him. The first vision is of an almond tree. In the Hebrew language we have a play on words here. “The Hebrew word for watch sounds like the Hebrew for almond tree.”[xxi]
The word of the LORD came to me: ‘What do you see, Jeremiah?’ I see the branch of an almond tree,’ I replied.
The LORD said to me, ‘You have seen correctly, for I am watching to see that my word is fulfilled’.[xxii]
The second vision is of a boiling pot tilted toward Judah from the north signifying God’s judgment coming from that direction.
The LORD said to me, ‘From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live on the land. I am about to summon all the peoples of the northern kingdoms,’ [xxiii]
What are we learning from this? That God is the one initiating this disaster on his people. The question is why?
I will pronounce my judgments on my people because of their wickedness in forsaking me, in burning incense to other gods and in worshiping what their hands have made.[xxiv]
What we need to understand was that the temple was still functioning, the priests were still serving, but what God was focusing in on was the corruption and the idolatry of placing their trust in the idols of the nations around them. They were worshiping false gods and paying lip service to Yahweh. The concluding verses in the chapter forewarn Jeremiah of the resistance of the people and their animosity that will be directed at him for sharing a message that they did not want to hear nor believe; but that God would rescue him from their evil intentions toward him.
God is gracious. He warns us before He disciplines us. Yet, when we ignore Him, discipline comes our way. God will apprehend us, grabbing our attention. He wants us to hear his voice, heed his call, obey his mandates, his counsel and words. He designed each and every one of us for a purpose. To discover that purpose means that we need to encounter Him. It certainly may not be dramatic like Moses at the burning bush, or Isaiah having a vision in the temple. But each of us like Jeremiah need to hear and then obey God’s word. It is critical not only for our own wellbeing but also for those around us. How many here can acknowledge that we may not fully understand what God is doing in this time of crisis? That our greatest problem is our mouths? That we say a whole lot about what we truly know very little of? What we often say creates the most pain both for ourselves and others. God desires to touch our mouths by cleansing our hearts.
May we pray as the Psalmist: “set a guard over my mouth, LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips. Do not let my heart be drawn to what is evil so that I take part in wicked deeds along with those who are evildoers (Psalm 141:3-4a).”
[i] William G. Moorehead, Outline Studies in the Books of the Old Testament, Jeremiah, (Old Tappan, N. J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1893), 2.
[ii] Psalm 119:67-68, The New International Version of the Bible, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.
[iii] William G. Moorehead, Outline Studies in the Books of the Old Testament, Jeremiah, 3.
[iv] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 1; The Daily Study Bible Series, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1983.), 8.
[v] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, New International Biblical Commentary, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 21.
[vi] Jeremiah 1:2-3.
[vii] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 1; 7.
[viii] Jeremiah 1:4-5.
[ix] Matthew 5:11-12.
[x] J. Andrew Dearborn, Jeremiah, Lamentations, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids: MI: Zondervan, 2002), 52.
[xii] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, 11.
[xiii] 1 Peter 2:9-10.
[xiv] 2 Corinthians 2:16b-17.
[xv] Jeremiah 1:7-8.
[xvi] Matthew 28:18-20.
[xvii] Isaiah 6:5-7.
[xviii] James 3:6.
[xix] Jeremiah 1:9b-10.
[xx] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, 14.
[xxi] Notes from the New International Version of the Bible, (Zondervan, 2011), 817.
[xxii] Jeremiah 1:11-12.
[xxiii] Jeremiah 1:14-15a.
[xxiv] Jeremiah 1:16.