1:1-19 Jeremiah Barrow 13/10/13
What does it mean to serve God? Does it mean that when we have considered the gifts we have, prayed about it, and offered ourselves to God that we shall have a great sense of ‘inner peace’ and a ‘successful’ ministry. In which people respond positively to what we have to do or say. Well, it may be like that for some people, but it is not always. For some people they sense that they are ‘called’ to a ministry that does not necessarily suit them, or which is not conspicuously successful, nor is marked by a sense of ‘inner peace’. That is the case with Jeremiah, and his life and ministry challenges some of our modern assumptions about Christian discipleship. Jeremiah has been called the ‘weeping prophet’ and we shall see why that is a very apt description of him. Inwardly he had doubts and anxieties, and we hear him pouring out his heart towards God, outwardly he was put in the stocks (ch. 20) threatened with the death sentence (ch. 26), imprisoned (ch. 32), dying of hunger in an old well (ch. 38), bound in chains (ch. 40), ridiculed by Hananiah (ch. 28), ignored by Jehioakim (ch. 36) and contradicted by another prophet (ch. 43). And he finally ends up being dragged off to Egypt (43:1-6). And yet through it all he proclaims God’s message faithfully and clearly. John Goldingay says the lesson we can learn from Jeremiah is “how to be triumphant without being triumphalist, and how to be defeated without being defeatist. He shows us, in fact, that the key lies in relating these two experiences, triumph and defeat to each other." As Paul wrote we have treasure, but in earthen vessels.”
Jeremiah was born about 650 BC. Well before this time the Northern kingdom of Israel had been conquered and deported by Assyria. But now, Assyria itself was in decline, and Babylon was growing. Egypt was also very strong at this time. The kingdom of Judah found itself caught in the crossfire between these two superpowers.
Jeremiah was the son of a priest, his birthplace Anathoth being a city specially set aside for priestly families (1; cf. Jos. 21:18). It was close to Jerusalem, and the priests would have made the short journey to the city as required in order to perform their duties. In the normal course of events, Jeremiah would have exercised the priestly office in due time.
This expectation was interrupted, however, by his call to be a prophet. The phrase ‘The word of the LORD came to him’ (2) is a typical way of speaking about a prophet’s call in the OT (cf. Ho. 1:1; Joel 1:1; Ezk. 1:3; Mi. 1:1). It shows well how the prophetic mission was not sought by the person to whom it came. Rather, God chose the person for his purpose. His will, once revealed, required that Jeremiah give himself wholly to it. His whole life would be affected by it deeply.
Jeremiah’s first response to the call was most reluctant (6; cf. that of Moses, Ex. 4:10-13). He was only a young man (the word translated child might better be ‘youth’; Jeremiah could have been around twenty). In a society which valued the wisdom of older people, he might well have felt unable to speak, i.e. a lack of any natural qualification to lead or to interpret events for the whole nation. The Lord, however, had anticipated his objection; he knew and appointed him before he was born (5). This is a remarkable statement of God’s foreknowledge, and particularly of his calling of an individual. It puts all natural and acquired qualifications in the shade. It also puts other aspirations in the shade. When God called Jeremiah, he laid his hand on him in such a way that there could be no true choice but to hear and obey. He had been brought to this hour for this purpose. Yet, of course, he must choose, and must obey, and continue to do so throughout his ministry.
The word to Jeremiah not only reassured the prophet but also validated his ministry among the people. In this sense it comes to all (not just ministers or other church officials) who feel their inability to perform what they know God has called them to. It warns church people generally against being superficial in assessing the gifts and ministries of others. If God calls, then he will equip us. All he asks is that we be FAT - Faithful, Available, Teachable. Or as another commentator (Lion Handbook) has said ‘What God expects from his messengers are willingness, spiritual, mental and moral sensitivity.’
God reassured Jeremiah that he would protect him from those who would oppose and hate him. As a bearer of God’s word he shared, in a sense, in God’s authority even over kingdoms (10). Jeremiah’s message would indeed prove to be important for a number of nations, not just Judah and Babylon (see ‘Oracles against the nations:’ on chs. 46-51). God’s words of both judgment and salvation would surely find their mark. And here is where Jeremiah was triumphant, whatever the personal cost he would proclaim God’s word effectively.
Jeremiah was given visions to confirm God’s assurance to him that the call was authentic. The first vision (v.11), of an almond tree, depends for its meaning on the resemblance in Hebrew between the word for almond tree and the word for watching. The second in v13, of a boiling pot, shows that the message would be one of judgment at the hands of a people from the north (14). Babylon was not yet specified. The plural (all the peoples ... their kings; 15-16) is vague. Jeremiah may not initially have known that Babylon would be the foe in question. The setting up of the thrones of foreign kings in the gates of Jerusalem (15) implies that they, and their gods, now ruled there. It looks as if the Lord himself had failed his people. But the prophet will show why their humiliation must be so.
The sin for which the people would be judged was the fundamental one of breaking the covenant with the Lord, by the rejection of him in favour of other gods (16). This was to attack the covenant at its roots, as the people had done at the time when it was first made, at Mount Sinai (Ex. 32). It will be a constant theme in the book.
Finally, Jeremiah was told again to stand firm (17). As the nation would have enemies, so would he, among the people themselves, including the powerful among them (18). The Lord, however, is more powerful than they are, and he will protect him (19). The promise will have to be repeated - and kept (see 11:18-23).
My Lord, I did not choose you
for that could never be;
my heart would still refuse you
had you not chosen me:
you took the sin that stained me,
you cleansed me, made me new,
for you, Lord, had ordained me
that I should live in you.
Unless your grace had called me
and taught my opening mind
the world would have enthralled me,
to heavenly glories blind:
my heart knows none above you;
for you I long, I thirst,
and know that, if I love you,
Lord, you have loved me first.
J. Conder (1789-1855)
© in this version Jubilate Hymns