February 3, 2013
It is always odd to consider just how we got to the place where we are. I am writing this article about the prophet Jeremiah from a ship, sailing on the Caribbean Sea, returning to Galveston, Texas after a journey that included Mexico, Grand Cayman, and Jamaica. I am on this ship, wearing shorts in January (!), because I was asked to offer some lectures to a group of travelers, lectures based around the books of Samuel in the Hebrew Bible. Well, I am a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, so it hardly seems unlikely that I would be asked to talk about it to some who may be interested.
But the unlikely part of this story is that I was not raised in the church; I have no church background whatever, not having gone to church until I was in my twenties. Furthermore, I went to seminary primarily because the woman to whom I have now been married for forty-three years, said to me, on our fourth or fifth date, that she simply could not marry someone who was not a Methodist minister. Believe me when I say that the call of God got very loud at that moment! In addition, what she really meant by that demand, unbeknownst to her, was that she really wanted herself to be a Methodist minister, which she became some twenty years later. But I became one, too, although spent most of my ministerial years teaching in a seminary.
What are the events that brought you to your place in life? Jeremiah gives us insight into the factors that turned him into a prophet of YHWH, however much that task became first onerous, then dangerous, then downright appalling. Jeremiah was raised in a retired preacher's home—Anathoth, a small village in the central highlands of Israel in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin. It was to this tiny place that David had banished the priest Abiathar, who had chosen to follow David's eldest son, Adonijah, expecting him to succeed his father as king. Unfortunately, Solomon, son of Bathsheba, was David's choice. While Joab, David's loyal general who also followed Adonijah, was murdered in the temple itself by Benaiah, the new "hit man" of the kingdom, Abiathar was not killed but banished to Anathoth. We may then assume that this village became a refuge of priests over the next years.
Thus, Jeremiah was raised around priests, their conversation, and their actions. Because of this unique context, Jeremiah's life was fairly early fixed on the things of YHWH and YHWH's service. So, as he reflects on what made him a prophet, his conviction is an incredibly strong one. "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I consecrated you (or "ordained" you). I appointed you a prophet to the nations" (Jer. 1:5). Jeremiah's calling from God is certain, and was known to God before his birth, even before his conception.
But, just like the great Moses, whose name would have been common on the lips of the priests of Anathoth, Jeremiah heard this call most reluctantly. "Ah, YHWH God. I certainly do not know how to speak, because I am only a boy" (a na'ar in Hebrew, usually a child under the age of ten). Moses, called by YHWH out of the persistent flames of a bush, remonstrates with YHWH by claiming, "O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; I am slow of both speech and tongue" (Ex. 4:10). Listening to Moses address the Pharaoh, and later YHWH on Sinai, suggests clearly that Moses' claims at poor speech abilities are wildly exaggerated. In short, his claims are merely an attempt to escape the call of his God.
And, precisely as at the bush, God will have none of Jeremiah's resistance. "Do not say, 'I am only a boy;' you will go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you" (Jer. 1:7-8). God will have God's way, no matter our attempts to weasel out, wimp out, or wash out. Jeremiah's deep convictions of calling trump his unwillingness to carry that calling out. Like Moses, Jeremiah finally went at the call of YHWH.
But perhaps if they both had listened more closely to all that YHWH had in mind for them, they would have argued harder against the call. Though YHWH promises Jeremiah that he will never be alone in his work, that he will always be delivered by his God, that later proves not to be so certain. Jeremiah again and again finds himself alone and afraid in his ministry, calling for God to help him but receiving only silence (so Jer. 20) or demands to keep at the terrible task that has been assigned (so Jer. 15:19-21). Here is how Jeremiah summarizes what YHWH has called him to do. "Then YHWH put out his hand and touched my mouth: 'Now I have put my words in your mouth. This very day I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and plant'" (Jer. 1:10).