A SURVEY OF THE MAJ0R PROPHETS, 5

Rembrandt's Jeremiah

The Calling, Jeremiah 1:1—19

While most students of the Bible love the book of Isaiah and consider him to be the prophetic voice of the Old Testament, Jeremiah is thought to be the foremost Old Testament prophet.  Jeremiah was the most personable of the prophets; we know more about him than any other.  With good reason Jeremiah is known as “the weeping prophet,” for he witnessed the downfall and exile of his people, literally from the window of his home.  Not only are his writings intense and interesting, the man himself was remarkable; he is often credited by historians with the survival of his people after the Fall of Jerusalem in 586  BC.

The book of Jeremiah is longer than Isaiah or Ezekiel, and the Minor Prophets combined still fall short of Jeremiah’s length.  So significant are the writings of Jeremiah that some scholars consider them to be the most significant in the Old Testament.   Not so much for the prophecies, but for the window on the decline and fall of the Judean kingdom, is this assessment made.   Jeremiah’s theology had influenced the theological thinking of his and subsequent generations and also inspired the writing of some Apocryphal books, including “The Letter of Jeremiah” and “The Book of Baruch.”

1.  Introducing the prophet and his times, verses 1—3

1 The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. 2 The word of the LORD came to him in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah, 3 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.

These first three verses make up the title and preface to the scroll containing what we commonly refer to as the Book of Jeremiah.  These verses serve three functions, in that they:

  • Identify the writer.  The book contains the “words of Jeremiah.”  The word “Jeremiah” most naturally means “the Lord shoots” or “the Lord hurls.”  Exactly how this name relates to the prophet is open to speculation, however, given the nature of the times in which he lived, it is possible to see a connection between the prophet’s name and the pointed character of his divine utterances to a sinful nation.  Jeremiah’s name could also indicate the nature of his ministry; being literally thrown into his tumultuous times to deliver stern words of judgment and prophecy.   Beyond his name, we learn that his father was a man by the name  Hilkiah and that his hometown was Anathoth.  There is some debate as to Hilkiah’s lineage, but scholars point to the fact that Jeremiah’s family was made up of priests because Anathoth was a priestly city as far back as the days of Joshua.  In fact, it is likely that Hilkiah was part of the family of Abiathar, David’s priest, and if this the case, then Jeremiah himself was directly related to Eli, who was the high priest during the days of Samuel.
  • Initiation of the writer.  Clearly, Jeremiah began his prophetic career at God’s initiative:  “the word of the Lord came to him.”  If the Bible teaches us anything about the call of God and God’s redemptive plans for man, it is that God always takes the initiative.  Every good thing in one’s life and in the world is the result of prevenient grace; the “grace that goes before.”  Jeremiah did not summon God’s permission to speak for him words he thought the people needed to hear; it was God who called for the prophet to speak words God knew the people needed to hear.   God was the Prime Mover behind the life and work of Jeremiah.
  • History of the writer.  It helps our understanding of all the prophets if we understand that they ministered during periods of history described elsewhere in Scripture.  For example, the Major Prophets, including Jeremiah, can be woven into the historical books from 1 Samuel through 2 Chronicles.  If you read those books, you can get good idea of what Israel and/or Judah was like, especially in the years just prior to the fall of Judah and their Exile.  Only a handful of the prophets (Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi) ministered during the years following the Exile, and their history is covered in Ezra and Nehemiah.   As far as Jeremiah is concerned,   he began his ministry during the reign of godly king Josiah, king of Judah, probably around 626 BC and continued until the end of Zedekiah in 586 BC, when Jerusalem finally fell to the Chaldeans.

Jeremiah’s ministry, then, lasted at least 20 years, although some scholars estimate his prophetic ministry to have gone on for almost half a century.  That is a long to work with a broken heart.

2.  Jeremiah’s call, verses 4—7

The word of the LORD came to me, saying,

5 “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.”

6 “Ah, Sovereign LORD,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.”   7 But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a child.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.

Verse 4 is brief, only 9 words long, but it describes the very heart of the prophet’s life.  Jeremiah’s call to ministry did not come as the result of a startling, life-changing vision, as in the case of Isaiah, but rather simply by hearing God’s Word.  It was more than just hearing “word of the Lord,” though, for verse 4 indicates a “divine-human confrontation” (Paul Gray), where the Lord came very close to Jeremiah.  The prophet does not say he saw God, but the inference is that God’s presence was as real and as definite to Jeremiah as His Word was.  What a contrast to the transcendent appearance of God to Isaiah!   Here is the manifested presence of God changing direction of Jeremiah’s life.   What is interesting in this group of verses is that despite the weighty and undeniable presence of the Almighty that moved Jeremiah into a specific area of ministry, Jeremiah never lost his identity; he may have been absorbed into God’s presence, yet he remained the man he was born; notice the Lord knew Jeremiah, the person, even before he was born.

We notice how definite God was in His choice of Jeremiah and we compare that to how unsure Jeremiah was in accepting the call.  The vividness of Jeremiah’s call is seen in the Lord’s use of the transitive verbs:  I formed you…I knew you…I set you apart…I appointed you as a prophet among the nations.  Here we see the strength of God’s claim on the man, and that claim was before any other relationship or duty or obligation.   That is a pretty definite claim!    We see very clearly, again, God’s sovereign choice of an individual to perform a specific task, and we also see a coupling of God’s foreknowledge and the preparation of His chosen one.  God says “I sanctified you,” meaning that the Lord had been preparing Jeremiah for his work even before the call came to him.  Those whom God calls He equips and prepares; no one need ever fear serving the Lord.

Jeremiah, however, in characteristic style, objects, believing he is unworthy of the task set before him.  The awesome presence of the Lord served to magnify Jeremiah’s native weaknesses.  All through his writings we see this humble spirit shining through.  Jeremiah was not rebelling against God’s expressed wishes, he simply could not conceive of being able to carry them out effectively.  This reminds us of how Moses reacted when he was told to go back to Egypt and lead his people out—

Moses said to the LORD, “O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.”  (Exodus 4:10)

But the Lord, in grace and understanding, firmly brushed aside young Jeremiah’s objections.  Jeremiah was probably only at most 20 when his call came, but God makes it clear that he is His only choice to take His message to the people.  In verse 5 God indicates that He had chosen and ordained Jeremiah to do this work and in verse 7 He further tells the young man that he will go and preach what God wants him to.  We can only imagine how Jeremiah felt when he realized that from this moment on his life would no longer be his own; that the call of God upon his life was inescapable and undeniable.  That Jeremiah would go was already seen in the mind of God from eternity past.

3.  Jeremiah’s confidence, verses 8—9, 17—18

8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD.  9 Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “Now, I have put my words in your mouth.”

17 “Get yourself ready! Stand up and say to them whatever I command you. Do not be terrified by them, or I will terrify you before them. 18 Today I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land—against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land.”

God never makes a mistake in choosing His servants.  He empowers all He calls and provides more than enough encouragement for them.  Verse 8 must have been the greatest encouragement to Jeremiah:  the promise of God’s continued presence.  Nothing gives a believer more confidence than knowing God is near to them in good and bad times.  The word “rescue” probably tipped Jeremiah off to the fact that his ministry would not be an easy one; he would need rescuing, but that should not be a source of fear for the prophet’s help would come from God Himself.  In the New Testament, Paul fleshes out this thought and applies it to all believers, not just prophets—

The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.  (2 Corinthians 10:4)

Of course, the prophet Isaiah wrote these very encouraging words at the most difficult of times—

No weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and this is their vindication from me,” declares the LORD.  (Isaiah 54:17)

Jeremiah had a tremendous promise:  God would preserve him no matter what came his way, and not only that, God would give Jeremiah the moral courage he would need and also words he would need.  The touching of the prophet’s mouth indicates a spiritual experience he had in God’s presence.  The strength of that experience would propel Jeremiah forward, speaking God’s word in confidence.  In fact, God would remain so close to Jeremiah and Jeremiah would remain in God’s presence so that the words Jeremiah said would be the same words God would say if He were there in the flesh!  Now that is a close relationship!

Verses 17 and 18 near the close of the chapter further serve to show how the Lord will protect Jeremiah and  how the Lord has called, commissioned, and equipped the man to do the work.  As unworthy as Jeremiah thought he was, he was able to do the difficult work solely because of the power of God on his life.  When we think about the time in which Jeremiah lived, we realize how hard this job was.  In the next point, we will look at the brutal content of the prophet’s message, but consider this:  all of God’s prophets by now had passed from the scene.  Hosea, Joel, Amos, Micah, Nahum and Isaiah were all gone.  Zephaniah and Habakkuk may have still been alive, but their time had past.  Ezekiel and Obadiah were contemporaries with Jeremiah but their ministries didn’t start until his was over, Daniel was just a boy when Jeremiah was called and he also wouldn’t start prophesying until long into the Babylonian captivity.   Right now, at the time he was called, Jeremiah was a man standing alone; there was no one else doing what he was about to do.

4.  The message and the response, verses 14—16; 19

14 The LORD said to me, “From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land. 15 I am about to summon all the peoples of the northern kingdoms,” declares the LORD.
“Their kings will come and set up their thrones
in the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem;
they will come against all her surrounding walls
and against all the towns of Judah.

16 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.

This was the basic message Jeremiah was to give; it is a stern message of impending judgment.  Who loves the preacher of judgment?  The answer is NOBODY!   The sole purpose of Jeremiah’s call was to pronounce judgment upon his people.  This is the kind of evangelist who never gets invited to speak at anybody’s church.  Jeremiah’s people and country, who had been so patient in the past, had finally passed the point of no return; their accumulated transgressions had tipped the scales of divine judgment and their day was almost over.  The hour of God’s horrible judgment had come, and Jeremiah was to be an “overseer” of God’s plan.  How awful it must have been for this man.  Verse 10 serves as a kind of summary of Jeremiah’s message and commission—

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

Though he preached in Judah, his message encompassed all nations around him.  The purposes of God in Jeremiah’s ministry would be two-fold:  destructive and constructive.  His ministry would bear witness to the destruction of nations, including his own, but also he would preach the preservation of the promise of God that would be fulfilled some time in the future.

This must have been a baffling and difficult message for Jeremiah to comprehend and preach.  Like any devoted believer and citizen of what was the Land of Promise, the thought that it would torn from God’s people was unthinkable.  And yet, the horrendous future of Judah was a result of the stubborn rebellion of God’s people.  Generations and generations of Jews had continually jabbed a thumb in God’s eye, and after a long line of prophets had come and gone, Jeremiah is left with the final message, and it was a message seemingly devoid of all hope.

But like all messages from the Lord, Jeremiah’s would have a spark of hope buried beneath the bleakness.  Though Judah and other nations would see destruction and be overthrown, the refining fires of suffering and sorrow could result in a turning away from sin and disobedience.  This has always been the “strange side” of a loving God; often His plan of redemption seems to involve the most terrible things, like death and destruction.  Yet there is a universal law at work even in God’s plan:  some things must die in order for others to live.  Evil must be banished in order for good to thrive.  Man’s hands must be made to let go of all that is evil so that they may be free to receive what is good.  The old, wicked, and rebellious Judah must be done away with so that a remnant may return and rebuild.  What was true of ancient Judah is true of every man, woman, and child who has ever lived.  Romans 6:6 personalizes what Jeremiah wrote about on a national scale—

Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.  (KJV)

Jesus Christ died on the Cross so that those who identify themselves with Him may live.  There is that universal law:  One died, so that many could live. That is the good news of the Gospel.

Conclusion

Jeremiah was a faithful prophet; he preached an unpopular message to people who wanted nothing more than to see him dead.  Despite that, Jeremiah wept for his people because he knew what the future held for them.  But God was also faithful to His prophet; He kept him safe through it all.  Yet Jeremiah was never isolated from the threats and the emotion of knowing what was to come; perhaps that was what kept Jeremiah going.   The sadness and sorrow Jeremiah felt was nothing compared to what his people would live with because of their sin.  Maybe the prophet hoped that his words could change but one life.

We can’t help but think of Christ, who, like Jeremiah, came and ministered to people who eventually hung Him on a tree.  Yet even knowing what awaited Him, Jesus never held back from declaring the message His Father gave Him because as bad as the experience of Cross was, it eventually came to an end for Jesus.  The experience of Hell, on the other hand, will never end for those who stubbornly refuse to hear the message and repent.

(c)  2010 WitzEnd
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