Opening The Old Testament
So, You Want To Be a Prophet? Reflections on Jeremiah 1:4-10
With the accession of the kingship by Jehoiakim, the full fury of Jeremiah's prophetic language begins to sound in the land. No doubt, he was furious with Jehoiakim, who was little more than an Egyptian puppet, but there seems to have been more to his rage than that. The son was apparently nothing like the father, and Jeremiah on occasion becomes quite personal in his disdain for Jehoiakim. And his successor, Zedekiah, a Babylonian puppet, is little better. Thus, the bulk of Jeremiah's ministry occurs between 609 B.C.E. and 587 B.C.E. When Nebuchadnezzar destroys Jerusalem, Jeremiah, though he asks to remain with those left in the shattered city, is instead taken off to Egypt by some disciples and dies there. All that we read in the book needs to be heard in the light of this history of the end of Judah.
But his call, recorded for us in Jeremiah 1:4-10 and filled out by two prophetic visions in 1:11-19, is rich with insight for our understanding of the man himself. It must first be noted that Jeremiah was born and raised in a retired preacher's home. We know that because many years prior to the birth of Jeremiah, King Solomon had banished Abiathar, the last high priest of the family of Eli, to Anathoth, because he backed the wrong horse in the race to see who would succeed the dying David. His eldest son, Adonijah, declared that he was king, and Joab and Abiathar rushed to his standard. However, Bathsheba, mother of Solomon and Nathan, prophet and very close confidant of David, demanded the aging king to declare Solomon king. David does exactly that, and the followers of Adonijah leave his sinking ship like rats, knowing that their lives under Solomon's rule are likely forfeit. Instead of murdering Abiathar, as he soon does to Joab, Solomon banishes the priest to his ancestral estates. It is there that Jeremiah was born.
Surrounded by priests and priestly talk, the boy was raised and nurtured. It is hardly a surprise when he hears the voice of YHWH calling him to ministry. So convinced is he that he has been called, he claims that YHWH knew him, "before I formed you in the womb; before you were born I consecrated you and appointed you a prophet to the nations" (Jer. 1:5). But Jeremiah, apparently "only a boy" (na'ar usually means a child of ten or younger) when called, immediately questions that call by saying, "I do not know to speak," being far too young. Here Jeremiah echoes the ancient Moses at the burning bush who also claimed that he was a poor speaker, clearly a pathetic lie since his ability to speak well is shown over and over again!
But, as in the case of Moses, YHWH will have no rejection of the divine summons. "Do not say, 'I am only a boy!' Surely, against all to whom I send you, you will go, and all that I command you, you will speak. Do not fear their faces, for I will be with you to deliver you" (Jer. 1:7-8)! And what a ministry Jeremiah is given! Jeremiah says that YHWH then touches his mouth, perhaps reminiscent of the hot coal that singed the reluctant mouth of Isaiah in the temple vision (Is. 6:7), and said, "Look! I have put my words in your mouth. I have now appointed you today over nations and kingdoms to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant" (Jer. 1:9-10).
So YHWH throws the boy onto the stage of history during the time of Israel's demise, and his charge is six-fold, four parts of which are painfully negative. Finally, he is promised a word of restoration, but only after the necessary announcement of just how far Judah has strayed from the way of YHWH. It is a fearsome word; it is nothing less than the demand of YHWH that, if heard, might, and only might, lead to building and planting.
In our succeeding looks at Jeremiah, we will witness just how difficult and painful is this call, how his attempts to fulfill that call are met with derision, anger, rejection, and threats of death. And how the prophet, too, becomes angry and frustrated as well as morose and even suicidal. It is all here in this extraordinary book. Hold on to your pulpits! It is going to be a wild ride!
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.