IN THE HOUR OF ANGUISH

As we journey through the Christian life there comes moments where it seems God is distant and the task at hand seems overwhelming. Things are not transpiring as we would hope or desire. Jesus also had His Gethsemane experience, where the conflict between what He knew He needed to do and the difficulty of doing it collided and created conflicted within His soul. The agony in the garden was knowing that He would be estranged from His father because He would become sin, who had never sinned. The abhorrence of being separated from the Father and the darkness that would assault His soul brought deep anguish in Jesus’ cry to the Father. There are moments where we are treading on our journey of faith, where we come to our ‘dark night of the soul,’ where we feel the abandonment by God and the task before us seems beyond us. 

Roland Harrison relates the intensity of the anguish that Jeremiah was experiencing, caused by the hostility of those he was ministering to, in Jeremiah’s last outpouring to God found in Jeremiah 20.

This is a powerful poetic section which contains unusual psychological insights, not merely in relation to Jeremiah himself but for canonical prophecy as a whole because of the self-disclosure of profound emotional conflict. Jeremiah’s sensitive nature appears in his reaction to the sarcasm and ridicule with which his message was received.[i]

One of the expectations of a prophet was that their words would come to pass. However, in Jeremiah’s case there seemed to be a delay and as a result, Jeremiah was considered by many to be a false prophet, and later a traitor to his people. For a person who cared about his people, Jeremiah was often heartbroken regarding their rebellion and wept over their spiritual condition. He has been called the ‘weeping prophet’ because of his intense intercession for God’s mercy upon the people. Yet there was also a great emotional and spiritual toll in this sensitive man’s life. He endured much sarcasm and ridicule. His ministry, for the most part, was not well received and at times he experienced hostility and physical abuse. His life was threatened and endangered even though God promised Jeremiah protection from death itself. What we learn from this episode is the challenges and difficulties that obedient ministry exposes a person to. Serving others is often painful and very difficult. People are often impossible in their expectations and demands. So, while a part of Jeremiah wanted to quit and remain silent, there was another conflicting emotion within him that could not keep the passion of sharing the message of warning that needed to be heard. In all of this, Jeremiah expresses his deepest angst to God. This is the final cry of Jeremiah to God regarding his ministry. In Jeremiah 20:7-18 we find three emotional states or moods that he expresses to God.

THE FIRST EMOTIONAL STATE OR MOOD IS HIS COMPLAINT BEFORE GOD

Where is the safest place to bring our pain, disappointment, frustrations, and complaints? There is no one greater than God to bring life’s challenges to. He alone can bring about resolution, but there are moments when we may feel that God seems to be directing the challenges that we are faced with. The temptation is to bemoan our lot to others, and yet, we learn from Jeremiah and the psalmist to name a few, that the safest place to take our pain and grief is to God. Here we see Jeremiah’s deepest hurt and complaint directed toward God. He is angry at God. The language is intense and shocking.

You deceived me, LORD, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me.[ii]

The verb translated deceived could alternatively be translated persuaded or even ‘seduced’ or ‘lured,’ but in any case the charge against God is quite negative. That the proper translation is either ‘deceived’ or ‘seduced/lured’ rather than ‘persuaded’ is strengthened by the second colon, which accuses God of violence (you overpowered me and prevailed).[iii]

You have overpowered or seized me, is used in another context from the book of Genesis speaking of rape. It’s the idea that God has violated Jeremiah and taken advantage of him. This is a very strong term. Yet, we need to be reminded that God spoke to Jeremiah at the initial calling that he was created for this very purpose to be God’s spokesperson to an unrelenting and unrepentant people, but God would not allow the people to prevail over him.

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.

See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.[iv]

Then, what is Jeremiah complaining to God about? He is saying that the message is difficult to convey because it is a message people don’t want to hear, even though it needs to be heard. The response is that he is then insulted and reproached because of it. He is isolated by his countrymen and rejected because of the message God is asking him to proclaim.

Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the LORD has brought me insult and reproach all day long.[v]

However, if Jeremiah remains silent while he is watching the deterioration of his nation because of their spiritual apostasy and violation of their covenant with God, then the message of God becomes like a fire in his soul.

But if I say, ‘I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.[vi]

Jeremiah cannot contain himself because of the spiritual pressure of the calling and knowledge that lies within his soul. Yet, as soon as he speaks, the whispers that surround him haunt him. What is even more painful is that this is coming from his very friends, the people who ought to be supportive. Jeremiah has a deep sense of being betrayal both by God and those closest to him.

I hear many whispering, ‘Terror on every side! Denounce him! Let’s denounce him!’ All my friends are waiting for me to slip saying, ‘Perhaps he will be deceived; then we will prevail over him and take our revenge on him.[vii]

Such self-doubt must have been in Jeremiah, and it was so intense that, shaken by opposition and indifference, obsessed by the apparent failure of his ministry, he decided to call it a day: ‘I will not mention him [i.e. the Lord], or speak any more in his name (verse 9a). Only to discover that he could not! The choice was grim: to continue along the prophetic pathway facing ‘Terror on every side’ and self-doubt, or to leave that pathway and stumble into a jungle of spiritual torment. To give up was not the way to peace. …To go on was difficult, but not to go on was impossible. The God who had laid his hand upon him would not let him go.[viii]

Jeremiah felt that there was no safe place. The message that Jeremiah related to Pashhur that he would be called’ Terror on every side’ is now a taunt used against himself. Those who should be supportive are looking for ways to defeat and destroy him. Even in this most distressing of situations, Jeremiah is a man of deep faith. His confidence is firmly in God.

This complaint records the prophet’s reaction to his circumstances. Using the lament form familiar at least in general structure and tone to what we find often in the psalms of disorientation, Jeremiah records his anger toward God and those who persecute him. However, also like the lament psalms found in the Psalter, Jeremiah registers his confidence in God as his protector.[ix]

It seems that Jeremiah is of two minds. How often that is the case of the darkest hours of our faith. We know God is real, His word is true; yet the challenges before seem unrelenting and overpowering. While despairing we also affirm our confidence that God will see us through.

THE SECOND EMOTIONAL STATE OR MOOD IS HIS CONFIDENCE IN GOD

It seems we find this amazing mood swing in this communication with God. Jeremiah knows that God is for him, even though he feels forsaken and abandoned. The conflict then is between his theology, what he knows about God, and his emotionally distraught state of mind and the painful realities he is currently experiencing. In other words, his soul is conflicted. We may lose a sense of the intensity of Jeremiah’s situation because of the cultural mores of a shame and honor society. While Jeremiah seems, in the eyes of his contemporaries and possibly at times within his own soul, to be disgraced, shamed, and dishonored, the reality is that God will ultimately vindicate him and disgrace his opponents. Jeremiah knows he is called by God, has heard His voice, and is conveying God’s message to the nation and ultimately, as we shall see, to the nations. Listen to his confidence in God’s ability to protect him and vindicate him.    

But the LORD is with me like a mighty warrior; so my persecutors will stumble and not prevail. They will fail and be thoroughly disgraced; their dishonor will never be forgotten.

LORD Almighty, you who examine the righteous and probe the heart and mind, let me see your vengeance on them, for to you I have committed my cause.[x]

It is here at this point that Jeremiah returned back to the promises of God during his calling. God had promised that there would be conflict, but that God would deliver his servant and that they would not overpower him. Though Jeremiah complains that God has overpowered him, he is convinced that his opponents will not overpower him. We remember in God’s calling, God promised Jeremiah that He would be there advocating for him and delivering him from those who would try and oppose him.

They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you, declares the LORD.[xi]

In our lives as believers, during our moments of anguish, we must remind ourselves of God’s promises and stand upon them. We know that we are in a spiritual battle. Paul, in writing to the Ephesians, reminds us that we must be strong in the Lord, that we must put on the whole armor of God, and having done all, we are to stand firm. Our adversaries, though often manifesting as people against us, are in reality used by demonic forces to crush and suppress us. We need to heed the words of the Apostle Paul that we are in a spiritual battle.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the power of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Therefore put on the whole armor of God, so that when the evil day comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything to stand.[xii]

What are the things that we have done? We have put on the whole armor of God. We live a righteous life, walking in truth, having a shield of faith; faith that extinguishes all the fiery darts of the enemy. What are those darts, lies and accusations against us? We have the helmet of salvation, protecting our minds, knowing who we are in Christ. We have the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, speaking of applying God’s word in each context we are faced with. Paul is saying we can stand firm when we have the armor of God in place in our lives.

Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place,[xiii]      

Paul reminds us in Romans 8:32b, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

Jeremiah is simply reflecting the petition of the Psalmist who prays.

Contend, LORD, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me.

Take up shield and armor; arise and come to my aid.

May those who seek my life be disgraced and put to shame; may those who plot my ruin be turned back in dismay.

Since they hid their net for me without cause and without cause dug a pit for me, may ruin overtake them by surprise – may the net they hid entangle them, may they fall into the pit to their ruin.

Then my soul will rejoice in the LORD and delight in his salvation.[xiv]

How powerful to reflect confidence in God in the hour of anguish. It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord. Think of Paul and Silas, beaten and jailed in Philippi, simply for preaching the gospel of Jesus. What were they doing? Though physically uncomfortable and in pain, we read:

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.[xv]

They were praising God and only then did the earthquake open their cells, and the jailer awoke, and instead of ending his life, came to faith in Christ. God can turn the worse things in our lives into miracles of grace and salvation. Jeremiah exhorts us to sing praises to God in our darkest moments. Why? Because it is God who delivers us from our persecutors. It is God who delivers us from our great difficulties.

Sing to the LORD! Give praise to the LORD! He rescues the life of the needy from the hands of the wicked.[xvi]

Here Jeremiah is seeing himself as the person who the Lord will rescue. He sees that he is needy and needs rescuing from those who are set not only against himself, but ultimately against God. It would seem that this is where the story should end, but it doesn’t. Jeremiah is still waiting for God to work. He is still struggling and so, we hear his despair resurface.

THE FINAL EMOTIONAL STATE OR MOOD IS THE CURSES THAT HE EXPRESSES REGARDING HIS LIFE TO GOD

Here we come to the most painful expressions of despair and reflections. What is true of Jeremiah is also our story at times. It would seem that we have these moods swings, which all of us at one time or another have experienced, moving from despair to elation and then back to despair. Jeremiah is struggling with the task and response to his life and ministry. Rejection, isolation, and abandonment are painful elements that we as humans experience in this life. Jeremiah like Job in their dark hour of anguish decried that they were even born. Listen to Jeremiah’s lament.    

Cursed be the day I was born! May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!

Cursed be the man who brought my father the news, who made him very glad, saying, ‘A child is born to you – a son!’

May that man be like the towns the LORD overthrew without pity. May he hear wailing in the morning, a battle cry at noon.

For he did not kill me in the womb, with my mother as my grave, her womb enlarged forever.[xvii]

Jeremiah, like Job, does not curse God or his parents, but rather the fact that they survived their birth. What we are reminded of is that life brings suffering and pain. These two elements, pain and suffering are part of the human condition. Both the writer of Ecclesiastes and Job speak of never being born as being better than to enter into some of the hardships that occurs in their lives (cf. Job 3, Eccl. 6:3-9).

One of the great moments of life is the birth of a child. Here Jeremiah not only curses the day of his birth, but also the messenger that brought what appears to be joyous news. However the reality is that this news would lead to a life that would experience such pain. Jeremiah curses the messenger, possibly showing how messages meant to bring great future hope might also be rejected.

The bearer of the message is rejected by Jeremiah because he did not need to bring the news. He could have suppressed the news… Perhaps there is some subtle irony. As Jeremiah himself is rejected as a messenger, so Jeremiah would reject the messenger who cause him to be present and known in the world. Jeremiah knows all about messengers being rejected, and he wishes his birth message had never been delivered.[xviii]

The nature of the curse that Jeremiah expressed toward that messenger is that he would have been overthrown like the towns the Lord overthrew without pity. Most scholars believe that this is a reference to what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah. Why is Jeremiah speaking like this? Rather than the messenger announcing the joy of his birth, Jeremiah had hoped that he would not have lived and there would have been no announcement needed. Rather than bring joyous news to family and friends, they would have mourned the loss of a child.

Why is this man being cursed? Because instead of announcing with joy Jeremiah’s birth, he should have performed an abortion. It would have been a mercy had he never been allowed to be born and suffer in the way that he is suffering. He wishes his mother’s womb would have been his grave. Considering that Jeremiah acknowledged he was called to be a prophet in the womb (Jer. 1:5), this statement also throws a note of sarcasm on his prophetic task.[xix]

Considering how painful his life is at this point, Jeremiah is despairing the day of his birth. Listen to how he concludes his lament:

Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame.[xx]

It raises a profound question that we must all face.

His urgent inquiry is more than simply the ‘why’ of human existence. It is the ‘why’ of being given a burden of ‘plucking up and tearing down,’ a message completely (and predictably) resisted. The issue is not existence, but vocation that shapes existence.[xxi]         

The question is simply, ‘why did God create me?’ What did God have in mind when He fashioned me? To what purpose am I designed for? Here is where we must experience the greatest paradigm shift from what we hear continuously in our culture today. We were created to fulfill God’s will and to serve His purpose.

We must grasp the biblical concept that we were create by God for His good pleasure. He has something in mind for each life. In speaking of Jesus as Creator, we learn of this significant concept of Divine purpose for each life.

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.

For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. [xxii]

Notice the expression that we were made for Him. The question that should be on the lips of every follower of Christ is simply, what is His purpose for my life? Our lives are not our own, they belong to Him. What happens when I find that what He asks of me is deeply challenging, difficult, and at times painful? Yet, we need to understand that what God has called us to do is right, good, and necessary. Think of those moments when mothering is exhausting, or working and paying the bills in order to support a family may seem endless. Maybe you feel undervalued, underappreciated, or the challenges you are currently facing seem beyond you. The temptation is to run away, quit, give up, and flee. We live in a day of much irresponsibility, negligence, and indolence [laziness]. We rarely speak of loyalty, duty, and responsibility. We often faint when what God requires comes at a great personal cost. We see many easily justify abandoning God’s call upon their lives. C. S. Lewis reminds us in his book, ‘God in the Dock.’

The great thing is to be found at one’s post as a child of God, living each day as though it were our last, but planning as though our world might last a hundred years.[xxiii]

We need to live with a deep sense that we belong to God and to live is loving and serving Christ.

What was Jeremiah struggling with in that hour of agony? The challenge of fulfilling His God-given call in the face of great opposition, difficulty, persecution, and feelings of abandonment.

What are the challenges that are discouraging us? How will we respond to those challenges?

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[i]     R. K. Harrison, Jeremiah & Lamentations, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Vol. 19, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1973), 113.

[ii]     Jeremiah 20:7, The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.

[iii]    Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 147.

[iv]    Jeremiah 1:4-5, 10.

[v]     Jeremiah 20:8.

[vi]    Jeremiah 20:9.

[vii]   Jeremiah 20:10.

[viii]   Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 1, The Daily Study Bible Series, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1983), 162.

[ix]    Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, 147.

[x]     Jeremiah 20:11-12.

[xi]    Jeremiah 1:19.

[xii]   Ephesians 6:10-13.

[xiii]   Ephesians 6:14.

[xiv]   Psalm 35:1-2, 4, 7-9.

[xv]   Acts 16:25.

[xvi]   Jeremiah 20:13.

[xvii] Jeremiah 20:14-17.

[xviii]           Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 186.

[xix]   Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, 149.

[xx]   Jeremiah 20:18.

[xxi]   Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, 186.

[xxii] Colossians 1:15-16.

[xxiii] Wayne Martindale & Jerry Root, Eds., The Quotable Lewis, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale Publishing House, Inc., 1990), 241.

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