Jeremiah – the reluctant prophet
Israel’s existence and relationship with God is founded on promises God made through Abraham, Moses, David and the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel (see Jeremiah introduction part 1). These promises are shaped by God’s character of love and mercy. One cannot help but ask why so much of the bible is about Israel and what the relevance of Israel’s torrid history is for us. Since all scripture is for us but not all scripture is to us it seems that in these accounts of God’s promises and Israel’s repeated failures we learn something of the mind of God and how he relates to (at least) one particular group of people. In addition, it seems that Israel often forms a sort of framework and model for God’s overall plan to rescue mankind from our forefather Adam’s rebellion. Let’s keep this in mind as we follow Jeremiah’s career of warning on his part and rejection on Israel’s.
1. Introducing Jeremiah
Jeremiah was of a priestly line. His father was Hilkiah who was a priest based in Anathoth, some 3 miles northeast of Jerusalem. Jeremiah’s father might have been the same Hilkiah who found the book of the law during the refurbishment of the temple under King Josiah’s reforms. Anathoth was a priestly town and it seems that Jeremiah could trace his ancestors back to the priest Eli. Sadly, Eli’s story is not a great one and his relaxed attitude to his role as high priest resulted in his family line being barred from priestly succession. King Solomon banished Eli’s great-great-grandson Abiathar to Anathoth. Abiathar was the last to act as priest in Eli’s line. It is perhaps for this reason that Jeremiah did not act as a priest.
As noted previously (Jeremiah introduction part 2), Jeremiah began his prophetic career during the reign of King Josiah: in the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign (627 BC). He lived (and continued his work) through the reigns of Josiah’s sons, Jehoiachim and Zedekiah (as well as Jehoahaz and Jehoiachin the two kings not mentioned in 3, presumably because their reigns lasted on for 3 months each).
Jeremiah’s efforts saw scant reward. The spiritual condition of Judah at the time he started his work was at best ‘fair,’ by the time he finished his work it was at rock bottom! Hardly a success by human standards! There is certainly a lesson for us here. The spiritual condition of our nation is at a low ebb too. The teaching of atheistic evolution is now bearing its bitter fruit of intolerance and social disintegration. I noted last week that a well-known holiday company has withdrawn its advertising contract with a national newspaper because they judge the opinion of a columnist to be ‘in appropriate.’ His crime? To state that he believed that children benefit most from being brought up by a man and a woman. We live in days of intolerance and hate for God’s word. I think Jeremiah would recognise the circumstances. What’s our measure of success in our day? Perhaps we should look to Jeremiah as our guide!
Jeremiah gets the call. We often hear of people feeling ‘called’ to a particular profession or lifestyle – often it’s a vague feeling, but Jeremiah literally was called by God! ‘The word of the Lord came to me (v 4)’ This phrase (or similar) occurs more than 150 times in the book of Jeremiah. God was speaking clearly! I notice all too often that we as bible-believers are prone to dismissing parts of God’s word that don’t fit our frameworks or pre-conceived notions. We must take great care to accept what God says – this is faith – trusting what he says to be true. When God told Abraham that his physical descendants would be given a land forever he meant what he said, we should not mess with God’s words. God’s word came to Jeremiah when he was just a young man, perhaps late teens or maybe 20 years old (see verse 7). What this young man was about to hear would be a bit of a shock: ‘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.’ There is no doubt that God knows the beginning from the end – Jesus is the ‘alpha and omega.’ Since God is all-knowing, he knows what the future will bring. Now this raises a question that many people find difficult. They say that if God knows the future then we have no moral choice in what we do, God has set things up, he knows all things and we merely act out his play. Sounds reasonable? But how could this be true as it would require God to be the author of sin and all the evil that we see in the world. This thinking (that God knows everything, plans all and is thus responsible for all that happens) is wrong – the basic premise is faulty. The reality is that God made man with free will. We are free to make choices. The choices that we make are 100 % our responsibility because God has delegated his sovereignty to us. God knows how it will all work out and indeed has a plan that he will work out, but sometimes we can (and sadly do) work in opposition to God’s plan. Does this make God something less than absolute sovereign? No, because he delegated his sovereignty to us. Do not mix up God’s foreknowledge with his will! God is not willing that anyone should perish, but they do!
Now back to Jeremiah, God knew him before he was formed in the womb! What a remarkable thought. It’s a most wonderful thing when you are going through a difficult time to know that someone is thinking of you. God thinks of us before we are even born! Before Jeremiah was born, God set him apart or ‘sanctified’ him. God had a special purpose for Jeremiah’s life. Now I can hear you say – ‘well there you are – he had no choice in the matter!’ But is this what God said? Israel as a nation offers us a good example. Israel was set apart too (see for example Leviticus 20:26) – they too were sanctified: God had set them apart and all would be well? Not quite. Israel needed to respond to God’s desire to set them apart from the other nations. Sadly, Israel seemed to respond by doing all that it could NOT to be set apart from the other nations! Likewise, Jeremiah had a choice – there was no inevitability about this, a response was required. Finally, God says to Jeremiah, that he would be appointed as a prophet to the nations. Once again, there is no inevitability about how this would go – Jeremiah needed to respond to this call.
What about us? Paul writes to the believers in Ephesus and says the following: ‘we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.’ What is God’s will for us? To do good works and he has helpfully prepared them in advance for us to do! Sadly, I cannot help but look back and see so many times when I have utterly failed to do the good works that were laid out before me. We have a choice – and we have a responsibility. How will we respond to this?
Jeremiah now makes his response to God’s call. He is not very willing! ‘Alas, Sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak; I am too young.’ I think we can have some sympathy for Jeremiah. One of his forefathers was given a similar call – and he too was not exactly keen. You will remember when God spoke to Moses he gave him what turned out to be the most difficult tasks that one could imagine – to lead a million people in the wilderness for 40 years, to build a nation, to lead them spiritually and politically and as often as not against their will! Moses tried to wriggle out of the responsibility but God insisted! Perhaps Jeremiah was less reluctant but he for sure recognised his inadequacies. I think that this in many ways was exactly what God was looking for – he wanted someone who knew their limitations and who would look not to themselves but to the ‘Sovereign Lord!’ There were encouraging words for Jeremiah: ‘”Do not say, ‘I am only a child.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord. Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “Now, I have put my words in your mouth.’ What an amazing encouragement! Jeremiah as we shall see, will need all the encouragement he could get! However, for now this was enough – more than enough! Not only would God be with Jeremiah but also he would rescue him and would give him the words to say!
The task however would not be easy. Jeremiah was to be appointed ‘over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.’ These are big projects to say the least. The superpowers of the day in Assyria, Babylon and Egypt would be involved as well as Judea. We visited the SkyGarden in one of London’s relatively new tall buildings in The City (The Walkytalky building). The building is hugely impressive and the view from the 35th floor is outstanding – we watched the sun go down over what is probably the greatest city on earth. In stark contrast, here we are just a few people in West Street church in East Grinstead! Just nothing, and of no significance! God has a plan and a purpose for this world and we are part of that purpose. The bible is replete with information about the future of this world and how God will one day end the kingdoms of men, he will be king and his kingdom will be established forever. It is difficult to keep this perspective as we seem are in such a minority in our number and our impact on this world. I believe Jeremiah has much to teach us!
2. Two visions
The word of the Lord came again to Jeremiah. ‘What do you see?’ the Lord asks. Jeremiah reported that he saw the branch of an almond tree. Now this is a strange thing for God to put before him! Almond trees are the first to flower in the spring, and were probably well known to Jeremiah. Having acknowledged sight of the branch of the tree, the Lord then says: ‘You have seen correctly, for I am watching to see that my word is fulfilled.’ What is the connection here one cannot help but ask! Apparently, the Hebrew word for almond is shaqed, which also means ‘awake,’ and another similar Hebrew word (shoqed) means ‘watching.’ So what’s this vision about? Jeremiah is about to take on an exceedingly difficult task, will he accept it and if he does, will he have the strength to endure the intense persecution that it will involve? God is saying – in all of this, even when it seems that you have nothing left to give, even when the situation seems to be utterly hopeless the great God of the universe will be watching and will be watching to see that his word will be fulfilled. This is a wonderful A-star encouragement for Jeremiah! In our day too, I think we can say with some certainty, that God is watching us too and will ensue that his word will be fulfilled! I have to confess to a significant amount of worry about our situation, what sort of world is this for our children and grandchildren to grow up in? But God is watching.
There was a second vision, this time more foreboding. Jeremiah saw a ‘boiling pot, tilting away from the north.’ The boiling pot was on the brink of tipping over and releasing a tide of its scalding contents in Judea’s direction. The Lord makes the meaning clear to Jeremiah: ‘From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land. I am about to summon all the peoples of the northern kingdoms... 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. 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 must have been quite a sobering moment for Jeremiah – he was discovering the impact of decades of disobedience to God. I have no doubt that he would have recalled the promise God made to Moses as the people stood on the threshold of the long-awaited Promised Land. Obedience would be rewarded with blessing but disobedience would be met with curses and judgement. Jeremiah’s message to his people would not be to seek relief from this coming judgement it would rather be to repent and accept the judgement that was to come. As we shall see, it seems that those opposed to Jeremiah would claim the promises made to Abraham but would fail to recognise that other covenants were also in operation.
3. Get ready!
Jeremiah had a simple and yet exceedingly difficult task: ‘Stand up and say to them whatever I command you.’ Easier said than done! As mentioned earlier we live in an era of increasing intolerance to God’s message – it seems that freedom of speech is only permissible so long as the message spoken is ‘appropriate.’ Richard Dawkins in his book ‘The God delusion’ shockingly states that child abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest is less damaging to a child than teaching a child that there is a God! If you ever scan the reader comments sections of newspaper articles, you will note a violent intolerance to anything related to the gospel. The atmosphere in Jeremiah’s day was similar.
What was God’s advice? ‘Do not be terrified!’ God goes on to say why Jeremiah need not be terrified – ‘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. They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you.’ Jeremiah would be like a fortified city – he would experience security from harm, he would be like an iron pillar – he would experience the strength of God and he would be like a bronze wall – his defences would be impregnable! Jeremiah would need all the help he could get. His opponents would be his own people and the powerful people in the land; the kings, their officials and the religious establishment. God does not tell us that we will be like a fortified city, or an iron pillar or a bronze wall but he has not left us defenceless. Armour is provided to help us take our stand against the schemes of the devil (See Ephesians 6).
God would be with Jeremiah and would rescue him! This was a lot for a young man of perhaps less than 20 years to get his head around. What a shocking commission! I believe that Jeremiah had a choice – he could have run a mile in the opposite direction! He would not be the first prophet to try that! Jeremiah as we shall see stayed the course, and in all of the horror, disaster, and pain that was to come, he remained faithful to God’s word. So must we.