The So-Called "Confessions" of Jeremiah: Part One
The So-Called ‘Confessions’ of Jeremiah: Ancient Pains and Modern Applications
An Introduction - Jeremiah 1:5-10
An exceedingly well known novel begins with these words, “It was the best of times and the worst of times.” We who are ministers of the Gospel of Christ and expositors of His Word are quickly entering an era which could be described with these words: “It was the worse of times and the worst of times.” Both the comparative and the superlative adjectives seem to fit what’s going on today. The culture and the professing ‘churches’ around us are rapidly fulfilling Paul’s prophetic words in 2 Timothy 3:13: “But evil men and imposters will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (NASB).
Most of the OT prophets accessed their ministerial environments in much the same way, Jeremiah being especially exemplary among them. Evidences of his viewpoint pervade the pages of The Book of Jeremiah and also The Lamentations of Jeremiah. However, they are most acutely observable in the so-called ‘Confessions of Jeremiah.’ After briefly examining his commission in chapter one of this heavy-duty prophecy, I’d like to dive into three of the most prominent of these ‘Confessions.’
Like Moses and others, Jeremiah’s call to prophetic ministry was not devoid of human reluctances and protests. Interestingly, the rehearsal of his call recorded in verses 5-10 of chapter 1 was however followed up by a subsequent recognition of and subjection to Yahweh’s call. He therefore affirms in verse 4 via a common introductory formula indicating both the conveyance and the reception of a divine oracle, “Now the word of the LORD came to me, saying,…” (Jer 1:4, ESV). As God began to speak with him He antedated the time of that historical conversation with the fact that Jeremiah’s call actually had been divinely established prior to his conception in the womb of his mother: “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” (Jer 1:5, NIV). The Apostle Paul was made similarly aware of his providential preparations from the time of his conception in Galatians 1:15.
In the first poetic line of verse 5 the LORD uses the descriptive imagery of forming or shaping Jeremiah’s substance and character as a potter would in creating a special piece. The verb was used of God fashioning man from the dust of the ground back in Genesis 2:7-8. This Hebrew root will also show up frequently with various applications throughout Jeremiah (e.g., Jer 10:16; 18:2,3,4,6,11; 19:1, 11; 33:2; 51:19; cf. also , Lam 4:2). Before that process of forming was going on Yahweh “knew” the future prophet. The verb “to know” here bears its exceedingly important theological connotation of choosing or electing (cf. also Gen 18:19 and Amos 3:2). The prophet had already been chosen by God long before egg and sperm were sovereignly brought together. He had been wired by the Master Engineer not only to be an absolutely unique person but also to become His specially fabricated instrument for the carrying out of his divine mission (cf. also, e.g., Pss 119:73a; 139, esp. vv. 13-18).
Therefore, with the reinforcement of a poetically parallel line God confirms the consecration of His prophet by employing the primary Hebrew root for demarcation or sanctification. Once again, it is affirmed that prior to physical birth Jeremiah had already been sovereignly set apart for his task. This sets the stage for the actual commissioning by divine appointment, and that appointment involved being sent to the “nations” (i.e., the goyyim), a designation referring most often to the heathen nations (cf., e.g., chs. 46-51). However, the primary target of the prophet’s oracles of judgment was to be the rebellious people of Judah. That southern kingdom, after a brief reprieve under the reformation of King Josiah, was plunging head long into the depths of disobedience. Their apostasy more than qualified them to be counted among the “nations” (i.e. goyyim); they were sinfully surrendering their favorite “nation” (i.e., ‘am) status with Yahweh.
In response to this divine revelation and mandate Jeremiah was quick on the trigger of excuses, futilely trying to obtain an exemption. Verse 6 very literally reads, “But I said, ‘Ah [or, Alas], Sovereign Lord Yahweh, behold [or, indeed] I do not know how to speak, for [or, since] I am a youth.” In its larger and smaller circles of context, verse 6 could be more interpretively rendered: “But I protested, ‘Oh no, Lord God! Look, I don’t know how to speak since I am [only] a youth’” (HCSB). As previously alluded to, risings up of “the fear of man” (Prov 29:25) also plagued the likes of no less than Moses (cf. Exod 4:10ff.). As Moses found out so did Jeremiah: there are no excuses accepted by God from those who have been called by God.
Therefore, Yahweh responds in verse 7 and 8 with this retort: “But the LORD said to me, ‘Do not say, “I am only a youth”, for to all to whom I send you, you shall go and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the LORD’” (ESV). After the LORD directly disavows Jeremiah’s unacceptable protest, He forcefully, with more specificity, reiterates His command of commission to the reluctant prophet. It is possible in the restricted context of verse 7 to take the “all” or “every” impersonally with its following relative clause: “...everywhere I send you, you shall go” (NASB, emphasis added). However, geography does not seem to be the issue; the fear of people is, as indicated by the “don’t be afraid when you’re in their presence” (a paraphrase of v.8a).
As is often the case, when God calls men into tough ministries, he does not leave them without an assurance of His personal presence (cf., e.g., Josh 1:5). When Jeremiah would stand before people who might push the fear button of his own finite and fallible heart, the LORD guaranteed that His intimate presence would be with him, not to watch him fall, but ultimately to rescue him.
A further resource is divinely bestowed in verse 9, the sanctification of the prophet’s mouth along with the filling of his mouth with God’s own dynamic words. The first part of verse 9 exhibits parallels with the commissioning account of Isaiah (cf. Isa 6:5-7). Also, in the second part of this verse several parallels with the commissioning of Ezekiel are evident (cf., esp., Ezek 2:3-10; 3:4-11, 24-27). Being aware of these precedential parallels helps us to understand better the protection and promised resources that were conveyed to Jeremiah by the Sovereign LORD. These divine provisions would prove to be adequate for the awesome task sketched out briefly in verse 10b,c,d. Remember Paul’s testimony in 2 Corinthians 2:16b with 3:5-6.
So in view of what God says, supplies and sanctions in verses 8b-10, namely, “…for I will be with you to deliver you. [This is] the LORD’s declaration. Then the LORD reached out His hand, touched my mouth, and told me: Look, I have filled your mouth with my words. See, today I have set [i.e. a synonym of appoint, v. 5] you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and demolish, to build and plant” (HCSB), Jeremiah finds himself fresh out of rejoiners. Therefore, upon hearing these words the subdued servant, after the two introductory revelations in verses 11-19, gets to his task of conveying Yahweh’s oracles in 2:1ff.