There are times when it is very hard to be a man or woman of faith. People will not like what we say or stand for, in many parts fo the world Christians face terrible persecution. In this country there is increasing opposition to the Christian faith. And aside from all that we can simply get worn down, bad things do happen to Christians as well as other people. There are times when we really wonder whether it is all worthwhile. If ever we feel like that it is good to turn to Jeremiah, he certainly had times of despair and today's pasage is one of the starkest of those occasions. To make the best sense of it, it is worth just noticing briefly what comes before it (19:14-20:6). Jeremiah speaks his message of judgment right in the Temple Court. As a result Pashhur, the priest-in-charge has Jeremiah whipped and put in the stocks. After his release Jeremiah immediately repeats his message of judgment and includes a specific message for Pashhur. We see, then, some of the persecution he experienced, but also how bold, forthright and persistent he was in his ministry. Goldingay observes “Jeremiah here appears as a man who can be as hard as a rock when he is under great pressure to change his stance and modify his message.”
1) The man given no choice
Yet immediately afterwards we find the forthright prophet on his knees in despair. His outpouring begins in the most startling way, as Thompson translates it: You seduced me, Yahweh, and I was seduced. Jeremiah seems to be saying that he had understood his relationship to God to be something like a marriage bond but now it was clear that he had been deceived, enticed by God, who had used him and tossed him aside. The language verges on the blasphemous. It is an accusation that God had simply used him in the most base of ways. What has driven him to this? It is more than persecution. Jeremiah had been called to be a prophet in 626 BC and from that time on began to delare his message of judgment on the nation. But decades have actually passed by and the judgment hasn’t come. The city still stands, Jeremiah is still prophesying but he has lost credibility and become a figure of fun. Underneath the mocking there may still be some fear, lest Jeremiah turn out to be right after all - but as far as the public is concerned he is a laughing stock. He has to declare a message that never seems to come true. So, despite his faithfulness in declaring the message - inwardly he is in absolutely turmoil and anger - what is going on? And he confronts God head-on in no uncertain terms.
What is he to do? Common sense would say ‘pack up and go home’ Don’t let God play with you any more. But equally he finds he cannot do this either. v9 “if I say “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,“ his word is in my heart like a fire ..... I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” He finds that God will not let him off the hook, he has no choice but to be the voice of God. What a miserable position to be in. To feel ‘I have no choice’ is clearly very negative. But in another sense it may have a positive implication. Jeremiah has, at least, in theory, decided to try turning his back on God and on his calling. But he has found that he cannot. John Goldingay says “He is a man in a dark room who has found the door, and discovered that it is locked on the other side. So at least he knows where he is, and the purpose of it all may seem mysterious, but the possibility that there is a purpose is made more likely because he knows he has no choice” - If I have to do it, there must be a reason for it! And that probably made his ministry even stronger. As one commentator put it “If he had never said “I’ll forget him” would he ever have affirmed so positively “I can’t”.
2) Turning to despair to confidence
Having faced the temptation to abandon his call with the knowledge that he simply can’t. He is reminded of his fears - v10 “I hear many whispering ...” The pressure was immense, but listen to some words Jeremiah wrote earlier:
“But blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose confidence is in him.
He will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
(NIV Jer 17:7)
Has Jeremiah forgotten those declarations of faith? No, I don’t think so. Jeremiah is here doing what will lead to such renewed faith. It is a pattern we find many times in the psalms.
The expression of fear or lament is expressed and then the psalms lead into an expression of confidence in and praise to the God who does answer prayer. The psalmists are great believers in getting things off their chests to God and thus passing their burdens on to him; they can then praise him for taking the burden from them, for hearing prayer and promising to answer it. That is how the life of prayer is supposed to work and that is what is happening here, too. The grief of v.10 gives way to the confidence and praise of vv. 11-13.
3) Who is having the last word?
But these words of confidence and praise are not the end of what Jeremiah has to say to God. He cannot quite hold on to this conviction that God is with him. He has not forgotten the words about trust. But he is torn apart because faith and praise wrestle for possession of his heart with dobut and despair, and he cannot quite endure the strain of this tension: (Read vv.10-18)
The most amazing thing is that this chapter ends on that note of despair. Sharing your experiences with other people is relatively easy, when it means acknowledging that you have been going through a bad patch, but that the Lord has now brought you out of it. Here is a man who puts into writing where he is spiritually even though that means ending in total blackness. He had no choice and he found no release, because God needed someone to keep warning Judah about the calamity that was coming, and he had to keep living by faith (and not by sight) over the question of whether God was going to ever fulfil his word.
But why did he write it down? It is rather surprising to find these words in a prophetic book. There is nothing quite like it elsewhere in the prophets, though Jeremiah’s final cry of despair is paralleled and developed in Job. The other prophets do not tell us much of the imtimacy of their relationship with God. Why does Jeremiah do so? Why is there recorded in Scripture the personal and private agonizing of the man of God with God?
One reason may arise out of the fact that it is obviously not easy to be hard as rock on the outside when you are being torn apart inside. The tension between the outward proclamation and the inner scream itself threatens to rend the man apart. The sream, indeed, cannot finally be stifled or repressed. It has to receive expression. So writing it down helps to give expression to it in the only way that is possible. It gets is out of the system. That may be one reason why Jeremiah put it in writing.
That is itself striking. But even more remarkable is the fact that Jeremiah’s agonizing finds a place in God’s book. God, in other words, accepted Jeremiah’s complaints and protests and prayers for vengeance on his enemies. God let Jeremiah batter him on the chest, and in doing so, encourages us to follow Jeremiah’s example. We too may be called to stand as hard as a rock. But if, as we have to do so outwardly, we are torn apart inwardly, that inward affliction can receive expression. We need not attempt to bottle it up, because God invites us to pour it out. We do not have to deny it; we can acknowledge it to ourselves and to God. We can be honest with God.
But we mut be careful, listen to these wise words from John Goldingay “Now there is such a thing as effrontery or cheek, such a thing as failure to treat God as God. The point at which boldness becomes effrontery depends in part on the pressure a man has been put under, on the demands that have been laid upon him. Jeremiah is a man on whom God made total demands. He is a man who comes close to a total commitment. And the man of a unique obedience is entitled to a unique boldness.”
But equally I do not want to overstress Jeremiah’s uniqueness. Being faithful in our service of God can be very costly and at times of doubt, perplexity, anger and sheer exhastion we do well to remember Jeremiah and to pour out our feelings and hurt to God. I suspect such times will often be private and between an individual and God.
But there may be times when a friend confides in us. How would you feel on hearing a friend express such feelings? I think it important that we encourage the friend to turn to God, but equally I think it important that we do not rush in to condemn, but take time to listen and to help bear the burdens.