The So-Called "Confessions" of Jeremiah: Part Four
THE SO-CALLED ‘CONFESSIONS’ OF JEREMIAH: ANCIENT PAINS and MODERN APPLICATIONS
PART FOUR - JEREMIAH 20:7-18
As part of my interactions with the previous ‘confession’ of Jeremiah I made a comment about the boldness of the accusations which the prophet was leveling against Yahweh as rivaling those of Habakkuk (cf. Hab 1:2-4 and 1:12-2:1). In the ‘confession’ we’re about to jump into, you will undoubtedly find them superseding those of his younger prophetic contemporary. Furthermore, as verses 7-18 unfold, fasten your seatbelts. We are going to experience one of the most jarring whiplashes found in scripture. This confession will begin with protests on mega doses of steroids (vv.7-10), and it will conclude with laments that dive down into the deepest, darkest depths of the ‘Sea of Despair’ (vv.14-18).
But it is in verses 11-13 that we will all have to don our neck braces. This centerpiece of Jeremiah’s ‘confession’ begins with a ‘but-God’ one-eighty that matches the mercifully shocking ones found in Paul. In the midst of his life-threatening persecutions the prophet’s theology remained intact. Yahweh was both all-powerful Divine Warrior and Advocate of all advocates. So in the fiery oven of ministerial trials the prophet personalized these irrefragable truths about the LORD God and kept on keeping on, even doing so with praise. How will we fare when our experientially theological exams arrive?
This particular ‘confession’ is situated in a chapter that leads off with physical abuses of Jeremiah at the hands of Pashhur, “the priest…who was chief officer in the house of the LORD” (20:1; NASB). Furthermore, we learn of this Pashhur that he had usurped the prerogatives of a prophet (v.6).
When Jeremiah was released from stocks he by divine direction renamed Pashhur Magor-missabib, “terror on every side” (v.3), an epithet that our true prophet regularly used (cf., e.g., 6:25; 46:5; 49:29) to characterize the forthcoming judgment that Yahweh was going to bring against many nations along with the Southern Kingdom including especially highly accountable individual people the likes of Pashhur. Ironically the dull-of-hearing people of Judah would mockingly employ this designation as a nickname for Jeremiah (v.10). In verses 4ff. Jeremiah would deliver another oracle of condemnation and judgment, and by now he knew what to expect in return, more resistance and rejection.
Under the weight of accumulating hostilities, he blurts out unbridled accusations against Yahweh God which seem to border on blasphemy. The four graphic verbs which stand at the head of verse 7 are grouped into two couplets conveying first what Yahweh did to him (i.e., an active verb form) and second the incontestable success of the LORD’s omnipotent actions (i.e., a passive verb form). Unlike the episode about Jacob wrestling with the angel of the LORD (cf. Gen 32:24-32) Jeremiah herein seems to be saying “I didn’t have a chance!”
The first couplet is the most graphic one. Some commentators render it more euphemistically as “persuaded” or “enticed.” Most modern versions (e.g. NASB; ESV; NIV; HCSB) translate it as, “O LORD, You deceived me and I was deceived.” But it may be best to employ the verb’s most graphic meaning, i.e., “Yahweh, You seduced me, consequently I was seduced” (cf. Exod 22:16; and possibly, 1 Kings 22:20-22 [in a similar negative setting]; Ezek 14:9; Hos 2:14 [in a positive setting]). In other words Jeremiah is protesting that the LORD God had forced him into prophetic office, that his original complaints concerning his call had not only been ignored but also crushed by the Almighty One.
The second couplet (i.e. v.7b) reinforces this painful testimony: “You seized me and prevailed” (HCSB); “You overpowered me and prevailed” (NIV); etc. The prophet is definitely casting himself as a weak defenseless ‘victim’. As a consequence of God ‘having His way,’ he laments, “I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me” (v.7c; ESV). He returns again to his agonizing experience of rejection.
Jeremiah expands upon that very thought in verse 8. These lines could be translated like this: “For whenever I speak, I cry out (or) bellow out [this Hebrew verb’s pronunciation has been compared to the bellowing sound of a camel], ‘Violence’ and I proclaim ‘Destruction’, the word of Yahweh indeed always becomes to me reproach and derision.” It is not coincidental that Jeremiah’s younger contemporary Habakkuk in dealing with the tragic political and religious declensions in Judah used the same indicting terms to describe the abominable state of affairs they were both witnessing and confronting (cf. Hab 1:3). For Jeremiah those accurate assessments resulted only in even more hostile responses aimed at him.
Again, I ask, under the intensity and incessancy of such public pressures, what would we do especially as things in our era go from bad to worse? Quit?? Well Jeremiah had thoughts about doing so probably more than once as the first part of verse 9 indicates: “But if [whenever?] I say, ‘I will not remember Him or speak anymore [or, again] in His name, . . .” (v.9a, b; NASB). These ‘I resign’ words from Jeremiah’s lips, as authentic as they are in reflecting the prophet’s feelings about his divine conscription, set up a deeper reality which had always trumped such leanings. Listen to the ‘then’ punchline of his personal testimony: “Then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I am weary of holding it in, [cf. a similar statement about the wrath of God in 6:11], and I cannot endure [i.e. contain] it” (v.9c-e; NASB). The simile of fire previously used by the LORD to verify the power of His own words channeled through Jeremiah’s mouth and aimed at sinful, kindling-wood people (Jer 5:14; cf. also 23:29) on such ‘I quit’ occasions burned in the prophet’s own gut. So the only relief was to release those words from God to their ultimately appointed ends. Down deep he also knew that the words from God’s Word ever remain efficacious.
Those words may soften people’s hearts but they often harden them! Indeed every time Jeremiah was faithful in the exhaling of God’s incendiary words, he would experience more resistance and rejection. In this vein he next testifies to widening circles of hostility. Feel his pain in verse 10; literally, “For I have heard the evil report (or) defamation (or) whispering (or) gossip [HCSB] of many people, ‘Terror from all around; report him, let us report him’; every man of my peace [i.e. all my close friends (ESV)] who are watching for my slip (or) fall [are saying], ‘Perhaps he will be deceived then (or) so that we might prevail against him and take our revenge on him.’” These people were anything but “men of peace.” Call to mind the ultimate Benedict Arnold experience of Jesus, the Messiah (Ps 41:9; Mt 26:20-25). Also it is very telling to note Jeremiah’s prophecy against King Zedekiah in chapter 38, verse 22.
Furthermore the last part of verse 10 picks up two key verbs from verse 7. The lead-off, active-form verb in verse 7 was used by Jeremiah to caricaturize God as deceiving or seducing him so as to overpower him at the time of his call. Here the lead-off passive-form verb in verse 10 expresses the hope of the people, especially his close friends, who might then prevail over him and take their revenge on him.
Of all ministerial experiences there is nothing more painful than betrayals by a perceived friend, especially if he had been regarded as a fellow-laborer in the Lord’s service. Statistically this gut-wrenching phenomenon seems to be on the rise. If such a Demas-like episode comes your way, remember that you’re in good company, not only the company of Jeremiah, Paul, and others but supremely in that of Christ Jesus. And it is upon these occasions that the “I quit” reflex kicks in a la Jeremiah 20:9a. However, the prophet lifts his spiritual eyes out of the betrayal arena and up to the Almighty Sovereign One. We need to follow his lead as we turn our attention to verses 11-13.
Such radical circumstances (i.e. vv.7-10) call for a radical shift of focus. As previously intimated it begins with one of scripture’s spirit-lifting ‘But God’ introductions: “But Yahweh is with me like an awe-inspiring (or) terror-striking warrior.” In spite of the nepharious plottings of his turn-coat ‘friends’ the LORD God Himself was ‘on his side’ (remember again the truth of Rom 8:31). To show how invincible this relationship was he uses the simile of the LORD being the supreme Diving Warrior. All of his enemies were no match for this “dread champion” (NASB).
Consequently, Jeremiah’s antagonists “will stumble and not prevail [contrary to their plans in the previous verse]; they will be utterly ashamed because they have failed” (NASB). Although the future would prove this to be the case, in God’s ‘book’ it’s expressed here as a fait accompli. Such a divinely directed failure indeed signals the worse scourge imaginable in the east and ancient near east, i.e., shame (cf. even the prophet’s longing to avert it in v.18). Beyond all those illumined recognitions, his persecutors’ shame will come “with an everlasting disgrace that will not be forgotten” (NASB), i.e., “their dishonor will never be forgotten” (NIV).
These recognitions of a future balancing of the scales of justice lead into the pictures of Yahweh as Judge and Advocate in verse 12: “Now Yahweh of hosts, who tests a righteous one [cf. Abraham, et al.], who sees kidneys and heart, let me see Your vengeance on them, since to You I have presented (or) committed my case (or) cause” (cf. his similar testimony in Jer 11:20). God is the perfect Judge and Advocate since He alone is able to focus His infallible MRI on man’s center of being even penetrating down to his motives. It is not coincidental that the two anthropological terms, “heart” and “kidneys” had shown up respectively in Jeremiah 17:9-10. So the prophet’s imprecatory plea in 20:12 is wisely turned over to the Chief Justice of the universe before Whom he has presented his court case. Resting in Yahweh he not only can relax a bit but also worship.
And indeed so he does as verse 13 indicates: “Sing to the LORD! Praise the LORD, for He rescues the life of the needy from the hand of evil people” (HCSB). In the prophet’s invitation to any and all who might worship with him he uses familiar calls to worship which are especially prevalent in the Psalms (e.g., 33:3; 68:4; 96:1,2; 105:2; 113:1; 117:1; 135:1; 146:1; etc.) As so often the case, such invitations are backed up by divine precedent, a precedent which the persecuted prophet seems to be personalizing. Jeremiah categorically expresses the comforting truth that God has been and will continue to be the Rescuer of those in need. With his firm acknowledgment in mind it is, to say the very least, mind-blowing that anyone, especially a mouth-piece for God, one who was currently breathing in the rarified theological air at the top of such a lofty peak, would ever plunge head long back into the dismal depths of despair. But that’s exactly what happens in verses 14-18. This is a scary lesson for all of us!
In parallel fashion with Job 3:3-12 Jeremiah blurts out a curse of his own birth and the events attendant to it. Remember a precursor of this lament is found back in 15:10. He first curses the day of his birth (20:14) then rhetorically the messenger who brought the news of it to his father (20:15ff.). Remember that normally curses were reserved for morally responsible sinners (cf., e.g., Jer 17:5). Here however he doubly accentuates the cursing of his birthday with two emphatically parallel lines, moaning, “Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!” (ESV).
As he switches to the cursing of the man who brought the news of his birth to his father his words would be viewed as contradicting a universal ancient near eastern outlook. The good news of the birth of a son would have been joyously welcomed. Such a cultural perspective makes Jeremiah’s words all the more shocking:
Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father saying, “A male child is born to you,” bringing him great joy.
Let that man be like the cities the LORD overthrew without compassion. Let him hear an outcry in the morning and a war cry at noontime because he didn’t kill me in the womb so that my mother might have been my grave, her womb eternally pregnant (vv.15-17; HCSB).
These words form a morbid ‘masterpiece’ in the style of graphic sensationalism. Particularly eye-catching is his blending into this picture the dark tones of the historical demise of Sodom, Gomorrah and their neighboring cities along with the repulsive colors depicting him as an eternal stillbirth yet in his mother’s womb.
All of these grotesque impressions are obviously designed to set up his culminating “why” lament that he flings into the face of Yahweh God: “Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?” (NIV). With these words Jeremiah joined the ranks of Job, Elijah, and Jonah who all, at one time or another, desired death instead of life. Indeed in their various ministries they had experienced trouble with a capital “T”. However, more importantly, each one of them had been called to live and to serve. So Jeremiah’s why question had already been answered in general by God back in 1:5. He may not have been given in that call as many details about forthcoming resistances as Ezekiel had been given; however, this should have been fairly obvious to him in view of the historical period into which he was born and lived.
Jeremiah’s ‘confessions,’ i.e., protestations, were understandable in view of the political and spiritual declensions that were accelerating during the last days of the Southern Kingdom. Nevertheless, his bold accusations directed against Yahweh presumed upon the long-suffering patience of God.
Hopefully we who serve in times when things are going from bad to worse will not push the envelope to the borderline of blasphemy, but will follow Paul’s example who exhibited more balance even in the face of both ethnic and imperial adversaries. Recognizing the divine sufficiencies of God for service, may our testimony throughout our ministries echo the Apostle Paul’s:
Now we have this treasure in clay jars, so that this extraordinary power may be from God and not from us. We are pressured in every way but not crushed; we are perplexed but not in despair; we are persecuted but not abandoned; we are struck down but not destroyed. We always carry the death of Jesus in our body, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who live are always given over to death because of Jesus, so that Jesus’ life may also be revealed in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you. And since we have the same spirit of faith in accordance with what is written, I believed, therefore I spoke, we also believe, and therefore speak, knowing that the One who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and present us with you.
For all this is because of you, so that grace, extended through more and more people, may cause thanksgiving to overflow to God’s glory.
Therefore we do not give up; even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory.
So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen; for what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:7-18; HCSB).