Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 36. Jeremiah (1)
Jer 1:5 “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.”
The call of Jeremiah is very different from that of Isaiah. Whereas Isaiah had a vision of the Lord in heaven, Jeremiah has no such vision but hears directly from the Lord: “The word of the LORD came to me, saying…” (v.4) and the verse above follows. Both books are mountains of prophecy but having said that, that is where their similarity ends. Yes, Isaiah does speak against the sin of the nation(s) but after the midway historical interlude, much of what follows is very encouraging. The encouraging elements of Jeremiah are much less. (Incidentally Jeremiah is said to be the longest book in the Bible with more words in it than any other.)
Jeremiah is very much more focused on the present while Isaiah has a strong present AND future overview. Jeremiah has elements of future hope but most of what he says speaks into the present in a unique way. He is God’s primary mouthpiece at this point of history – the run up to the Exile. Ezekiel will be speaking to the chosen people soon to be exiled in Babylon, and Daniel will become God’s mouthpiece in the royal courts of Babylon, but Jeremiah is God’s man on the ground there in Jerusalem and he prophesied for forty years until Jerusalem was destroyed in 586/7 and then briefly to the fleeing rebels in Egypt (see Jer 44)
But like Isaiah, his calling is a clear highlight. For him it is the things the Lord says to him. The complete calling really includes a) the opening call and encouragement (v.4-10), then b) two visions that have significance in respect of what is to come involving him (v.11-16), and then c) some closing words of exhortation and encouragement (v.17-19). These are all significant verses for his future.
- The Opening Call & Encouragement (v.4-10): “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” (v.5a) You will see a footnote in your Bible that ‘knew you’ could be ‘chose you’. This is very similar to what the apostle Paul taught us: “he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” (Eph 1:4) Both speak of the God who has planned all things even before He brought the world into being. He looked into the future and saw Jeremiah – but He saw more than just that: “before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (v.5b) I believe it is a case of the Lord looks at us and sees what we can become, what is our potential.
It is a mystery why we are what we are. Ongoing arguments have gone on over “nature versus nurture”, how much genetic makeup and experiences being brought up, together contribute to who we are, but there is always another dimension – that of God (for v.5a suggests God acts on us even as we are being conceived – a mystery!) The Lord sees these two elements and speaks and acts into our life situations and, as much as we are open and available to Him, He works into our lives by the work of His Holy Spirit (who indwells us Christians).
So, OK, Jeremiah, God has had His sights on you for a long time and knows what He can do with you and He has chosen you to be His prophet to speak to this nation. Jeremiah splutters a bit over this, protesting that he is too young for this (see v.6) but the Lord puts this aside with a) an instruction – just do what I tell you and say what I say (v.7) – and b) an encouragement – and I’ll be with you so you need not be afraid, and I’ll rescue you (v.8). Talk of rescue doesn’t sound so good because it implies he will need rescuing and that is not exiting news!!! Then the Lord touches his lips (v.9) and says from now on He will give him His words and he will speak to nations and kingdoms (The fact that he says the Lord touched his lips, suggests an element of ‘vision of God’ behind all this).
- Two Visions (v.11-16): And so it begins. It starts with the Lord asking him what he sees – obviously visions. The first thing he sees is an almond tree and the Lord confirms he is right and says, “I am watching to see that my word is fulfilled.” (v.12) The almond tree was the first to blossom and it comes early and so the Lord implies that what is coming, is coming soon and He’s watching for it. Again He asks Jeremiah what he sees and this time he sees a boiling pot tilting away from the north (v.13) The Lord explains that He is bringing an invader from the north (that will be Nebuchadnezzar) and that He is doing this because of the sins of Judah (v.14-16)
- Final Exhortation & Encouragement (v.17-19): Now comes the tough bit. The Lord gives him a threefold starting instruction: i) get ready, ii) stand up and speak whatever I give you and iii) don’t be afraid of them (v.17) How can that be? Because, the Lord explains, the Lord has given him great strength to withstand “the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land.” (v.18) i.e. it sounds like everyone is going to be against him!!!! However, “They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD.” (v.19) It’s OK, Jeremiah, WE will overcome them!
Now let’s summarise what we have seen. First, the context of God’s perspective. He knew this was coming and He knew of what Jeremiah was capable. Thus he could be a prophet! Second, the big picture: it’s all about the sin of God’s people and the fact that God is going to have to discipline them with judgment in the form of Nebuchadnezzar and exile in Babylon. That is the end play of these next forty years! Third, He knows it is going to be tough because Jeremiah is going to be rejected again and again by all and sundry! But that’s not a problem because the Lord’s grace will be sufficient for Jeremiah to do the job.
Now here’s an important question: If the Lord knows Jeremiah is going to be rejected and the people will refuse to repent so that eventually Jerusalem WILL be destroyed and they WILL be carried into exile, what is the point of Jeremiah’s ministry? Why is he going to have to go through forty years of rejection and even hostile persecution? The answer has to be at least twofold. First, that Israel will never be able to say that they didn’t know what was coming and why, and they would never be able to make excuses for what happened. Second, so that we, the watching world, can see the fairness and justice of God in the way He deals with this faithless and foolish people. You can never say God was unkind because of Jerusalem’s destruction and the exile of the people, because He warned and warned again and again and again through Jeremiah (and through Ezekiel) and did everything He could to get His people to repent. THAT is what this book is all about and THAT is why the calling of Jeremiah has these specific features, as the Lord seeks to prepare him for what He knows is going to happen.
Now there is an underlying crucial lesion behind all this. Jeremiah’s ministry was to speak out God’s word – and that was all. What the people did with it, was up to them. In one sense, looking at the long-term you might think it was a ministry of failure because he failed to turn the people, but that wasn’t his calling; it was simply to speak. He was called to obedience and faithfulness – and so are we – whatever the outcome.