by Alan Summers, Scotland
The Book of Jeremiah opens with the following description of the book and its author: “The words of Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, of the priests that were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin” Jer.1.1.
The village of Anathoth no longer exists, but in Jeremiah’s day it was situated a little north of Jerusalem in a portion of land given to Benjamin and set aside for the use of the priests, Josh.21.2,18. Jeremiah, therefore, grew up in a community of priests. As the son of a priest he was destined to serve as a priest. But God had other plans for Jeremiah.
Although we do not know how old Jeremiah was when called to be a prophet, he describes himself as a “child”: “Then said I, ‘Ah, Lord God! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child.’ 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’” Jer.1.6,7.
In describing himself as a “child” we should not imagine that he was an infant. Jeremiah was in his teens or twenties when God called him. In describing himself as a child he appears to be referring to his sense of inadequacy. He did not feel he was mature enough or eloquent enough to speak for Jehovah.
Jeremiah’s ministry spanned the reigns of three kings: “to 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. It 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” Jer.1.2,3.
Two kings are omitted from this list: Jehoahaz, who reigned after Josiah, and Jehoiachin, who reigned after Jehoiakim. These names are omitted because of the short duration of their reigns. The stewardship of Gedaliah, who took over after Zedekiah, is also omitted. These words show that Jeremiah’s ministry spanned the lifetime of six rulers in Judah. He began his ministry in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah, Jer.1.2. We know that Josiah became king of Judah in 640 BC. Jeremiah’s ministry, therefore, began in about 627 BC. At the other end of his life, he served to the eleventh year of Zedekiah, Jer.1.3. Thereafter Jeremiah went into exile in Egypt after Jerusalem was finally overthrown, in about 587 BC. It is supposed that he died around 582 BC. If so, his ministry lasted about sixty years. That being so, assuming an average life
span, Jeremiah was probably in his teens or twenties when called to be a prophet.
It is important, therefore, to notice that God can call young people to serve Him. It is also important that God can overcome our feelings of inadequacy.
The call of Jeremiah is set out as follows: “Then the word of the Lord came unto me, saying” Jer.1.4. How the “word of the Lord came” to him is not specified. It may have been by a vision or a conviction that formed in his heart through reading the Scriptures or hearing other prophets. Whatever means God used, Jeremiah was told that God “knew” him and had “sanctified” and “ordained” him to be a prophet: “Before 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” Jer.1.5.
Although the word ‘call’ is not used, these words describe why Jeremiah left behind his priestly upbringing and began the work of a prophet. They signify God’s appointment of Jeremiah to a ministry that was to occupy his life.
The language of his ‘call’ is interesting. He is told that before he was “formed” by God in his mother’s womb God “knew” him. This acknowledges that conception is an act of God. There is a difference of opinion as to what the word “know” means in the context here. It could be a reference to God’s omniscience, that is, God’s complete knowledge of everything. Thus, it may be that God is saying that He knew all there was to know about Jeremiah’s life before he was conceived in the womb. If this is correct the implication is that when God decided to sanctify and ordain him, He knew what He was doing. This would encourage Jeremiah because it would make him realise that God was not making an error in calling him. If this is the correct interpretation, then a distinction is to be drawn between God’s foreknowledge of Jeremiah and His sanctification and ordination of Jeremiah. The first refers to knowledge before the event whereas the remainder of the verse refers to God’s activity in setting him apart and fitting him for the work of a prophet. There is another view of the meaning of “know”. In the Old Testament “know” can refer to action as opposed to thought. Thus in Gen.4.1 the Bible says, “Adam knew [yada] Eve his wife; and she conceived”. Here “know” is a euphemism for sexual relations. The word “know” is also used from time to time to denote intimacy with God. Thus, Samuel, when he was a youthful assistant to Eli the high priest and before he became a prophet, did not “know [yada] the Lord” 1Sam.3.7. Obviously, he was conscious that God existed. But he had not formed a relationship with Him. Similarly, God “knew” Israel. Amos says, “You only have I known [yada] of all the families of the earth” Amos 3.2. Plainly Israel was not the only nation that God knew about. God knows every nation. But they were the only people with whom He entered a covenant relationship.
One thing is crystal clear: whatever the meaning of “know”, the words that follow make it obvious that God can direct the course of a man’s life before he is born. The words “sanctify” and “ordain” signify steps taken by God to set apart and ordain Jeremiah as a prophet before he was born. If “sanctify” or “ordain” do not indicate that God took the initiative before Jeremiah even existed, these words are meaningless. Humanly speaking ‘fore-sanctifying’ or ‘foreordaining’ are impossible. But God stands outside time and is not subject to the rules that govern humanity. There is no indication that God sanctified and ordained Jeremiah because He could foresee he was ‘the right man for the job’ and would turn out to be a prophet anyway. These words indicate that God had decided in advance that Jeremiah would be a prophet.
Rom.8.29 uses the word “foreknow” and teaches that God “knew” us before we were born: “For whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.” We were not predestined to be prophets but to be “conformed to the image of His Son”. Likeness to Christ is intrinsic to and the consequence of salvation. It begins in time and comes to completion in heaven.
Later in Romans, Paul writes, “God hath not cast away His people which He foreknew” Rom.11.2. Here the word “foreknow” is used again as the semantic equivalent of the phrase, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee”. Paul refers to God “knowing” beforehand. He refers to God’s connection to the nation of Israel before they came into existence. Plainly this does not refer to personal salvation. He is speaking of a nation. But it shows that before God formed a covenant with Israel at Sinai God had already made a connection with them.
Lest it be thought that this means that Jeremiah had no choice in the matter of his call and was bound, whatever his thoughts and feelings, to become a prophet, we should note that the Bible treats all human choices as real and holds us responsible for our choices. Thus even though God “knew”, “sanctified” and “ordained” Jeremiah in eternity, Jeremiah still had to respond to the call of God. He had a choice to make. That choice was a real choice, whatever God had decreed in eternity.
“Sanctified” means ‘set apart’. The basic meaning of the Hebrew verb is ‘to be holy’. The term assumes that what God designates as holy is reserved or set apart for a particular task. Ordination involves a person being identified for service. In the New Testament it is often accompanied by the public laying on of hands, for example, Acts 13.3. Here the ordination is said to have been accomplished by God in eternity, before Jeremiah existed. The New Testament speaks of this as foreordination.
Jeremiah could have remained in Anathoth, where he had been brought up. He was a priest by birth and could have remained a priest to the end of his days. As a priest his duties would have been predictable and respectable. But at an early stage in his life God’s word came to him and he thereafter pursued the dangerous and uncertain calling of the prophet.
At the time of his call there were encouraging signs of revival in Judah. Josiah had ascended the throne and at about the time of Jeremiah’s call he had begun his programme of religious reform. It has been noticed that of the messages recorded in the book only one is said to have been spoken during Josiah’s reign, in the early years of Jeremiah’s ministry, Jer.3.6. After Josiah there was a succession of bad kings. Jeremiah’s messages were mostly given when the leadership of the nation was weak. This shows that God calls His servants to serve in both good and bad days. It also shows that often it is during days of decline and difficulty that God’s servants do their most important work. The same was true of Jeremiah’s contemporaries. Ezekiel and Daniel lived during the time of exile, when God’s purposes for Israel seemed to have been frustrated. But it was in times of departure and defeat that they did their most important work.
Jeremiah has become known as the ‘weeping prophet’. His writings are wet with tears (see Jer.9.1,18; 10.19; 13.17; 14.17; Lam.1.16; 2.11,18; 3.48.
“Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” Jer.9.1. His distress was caused by the state of his people and their fate under God’s judgment.
He was also asked to pass through difficult experiences. He was put in the stocks: “Then Pashur smote Jeremiah the prophet, and put him in the stocks that were in the high gate of Benjamin, which was by the house of the Lord” Jer.20.2.
He was imprisoned: “For then the king of Babylon’s army besieged Jerusalem: and Jeremiah the prophet was shut up in the court of the prison, which was in the king of Judah’s house” Jer.32.2.
He was placed in a dungeon (or cistern): “Then took they Jeremiah, and cast him into the dungeon of Malchiah the son of Hammelech, that was in the court of the prison: and they let down Jeremiah with cords. And in the dungeon there was no water, but mire: so Jeremiah sunk in the mire” Jer.38.6.
We can see, therefore, that obeying God’s call was a costly thing for Jeremiah. He had many hardships to put up with and many sad days. The fact that he faced hardship did not mean that God was not behind him or that his call was in doubt. Jeremiah was called to serve in difficult days and his message did not make him popular.
The people of his hometown tried to kill him, Jer.11.21, no doubt because his message was unacceptable to them. Presumably these were priests. So, he faced opposition not only from kith and kin but also from those who should, as priests, have been sympathetic to him. It is evident, therefore, that God’s call does not provide protection from harm. On the contrary, obedience to the call may often lead the Christian into harm’s way. The vindication of God’s call takes place in eternity, not in time.
The ministry of Jeremiah had an international flavour. In Jer.1.5 God calls him to be “a prophet unto the nations”. This does not mean that Jeremiah had an itinerant ministry among the neighbouring nations. He is depicted in the Book of Jeremiah as remaining within Judah. But many of his messages concern neighbouring states, such as Egypt and Babylon. This is the probable reason for his designation as a “prophet unto the nations”. The section of the book from 46.1 to 51.14 contains prophecies against a variety of nations.
His messages were not welcome. At the end of his life, he told Jerusalem to capitulate to the Babylonians, Jer.38.1-5. Jeremiah saw the invader as an instrument of God’s punishment. To resist was to resist the will of God. Needless to say, Zedekiah, who was trying to fight off the Babylonians, did not find this a welcome message and imprisoned Jeremiah, Jer.38.5,6.
At the start of Jeremiah’s ministry he was told: “‘Be not afraid of their faces: for I am with thee to deliver thee,’ saith the Lord” Jer.1.8. I do not think that God is telling Jeremiah that the people of Judah had particularly ferocious faces. He is referring to a phenomenon familiar to those who preach God’s Word. As Jeremiah preached, he would see anger, resentment and contempt written large on the faces of his audiences. God knew that this might discourage Jeremiah. Here God tells him that he must not allow the people of Judah to discourage him. Although his message would be difficult for them to hear, it was still God’s word. Jeremiah is told to preach the message God gave him and not to allow its unpopularity to influence him.
Isaiah’s lips were touched with a live coal from the heavenly altar, Isa.6.6,7. Jeremiah’s mouth was touched by the hand of God: “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’” Jer.1.9.
By this symbolic act God reassured Jeremiah that He would equip him to fulfil his calling. Though he might feel unable to speak for God, he would be helped to fulfil his ministry. Jeremiah no doubt wondered at the end of his days whether he had failed. He was in exile in Egypt, Jer.43.7,8, and Judah was overthrown. But his prophecies were not forgotten. Daniel evidently read Jeremiah’s writings in exile in Babylon, Dan.9.2; Jer.25.11,12; 29.10, and realised that God’s purpose was to bring His people back from exile, to Judah. Isaiah, who had also prophesied before the exile, had predicted that a man called Cyrus would permit the nation to return. There is no reason to doubt that Daniel would know about Isaiah’s prophecy, Isa.44.28; 45.1,2,13. Thus Jeremiah’s words came to pass, like Isaiah’s, after he died. His prophecy is a remarkable example of prophecy that was fulfilled in the short term. Many prophecies deal with end times. Many centuries roll their course between utterance and fulfilment. Jeremiah’s prophecy of the seventy-year exile was fulfilled shortly after his death. His other great prophecy concerns the New Covenant, Jer.31.31. It was in part fulfilled in the death of Christ but its completion awaits the day of Judah’s restoration. These two great prophecies demonstrate that God performed His promise to put His words in Jeremiah’s mouth.
The Book of Jeremiah is a lengthy book. The Book of Psalms is usually thought to be the longest book in the Bible, but it is in truth the work of many authors and a series of individual psalms. If the Psalms are excluded from consideration, the longest single book in the Old Testament is Jeremiah. It would be impossible to summarise all that Jeremiah taught. But just after his call in chapter 1 there is an overview of his ministry: “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” Jer.1.10.
Jeremiah was set over nations as a prophet, not as a king. He prophesied to Judah but embraced the Medes and Persians, the Babylonians and the Egyptians in his ministry. The Lord summarises his ministry in negative terms. He would root out, pull down, destroy and throw down. The apostasy of his day required a condemnatory ministry. But alongside this ministry was one of building and planting. Thus, even if his work was to warn Judah of its failure and prophesy its doom, he also promised a brighter future. This is the idea behind the “almond tree” Jer.1.11. Jeremiah saw a tree that was the first to blossom in the spring. But he also saw a “seething pot” to the north, Jer.1.13. That boiling pot represented Judah’s enemies to the north, and in particular Babylon. Jeremiah’s main role was to tell Judah that Babylon would overwhelm them and that Jerusalem would be taken. This was not what the people wanted to hear.
The last words of chapter 1 are given to encourage Jeremiah: “‘For, behold, I have made thee this day a defenced city, and an iron pillar, and brasen 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. And they shall fight against thee; but they shall not prevail against thee; for I am with thee,’ saith the Lord, ‘to deliver thee’” Jer.1.18,19.
Jerusalem was a defenced city, but it would be pulled down. Its stones and ramparts would crumble but Jeremiah would prevail. Even though the whole land fought against him God would protect him. God promised: “I am with thee to deliver thee”. Thus, those who heed God’s call can have confidence. The odds may seem overwhelming, but God is mighty to deliver. Like Jeremiah, those who heed God’s call can take confidence in God’s power to deliver.