The So-Called "Confessions" of Jeremiah: Part Three
THE SO-CALLED ‘CONFESSIONS’ OF JEREMIAH: ANCIENT PAINS and MODERN APPLICATIONS
PART III - JEREMIAH 15:15-21
This particular passage comes in two installments, Jeremiah’s accusatory lament (vv. 15-18) and Yahweh’s firm but encouraging rebuke (vv. 19-21). It may be advantageous to consider verse 10 of this same chapter as a preview of the lament that lies immediately before us. This verse encapsulates the prophet’s inner pains at this stage in his ministry: “Woe is me, my mother, that you gave birth to me [for such shocking imagery cf. Job 3:3ff.], a man who incites dispute and conflict in all the land. I did not lend or borrow, yet everyone curses me.” (Jer 15:10, HCSB). Implicationally, by this dirgeful outburst, the prophet is again protesting the results of his divine calling that had been given to him in 1:5.
Most painful to him was the reality of becoming more and more an outcast while serving the LORD God in the midst of a sinful nation. Jeremiah would have to learn, as all servants of God must learn, that we need to exemplify both a commitment and an attraction to the Lord instead of the world (remember James’ heavy-duty warnings in 4:4ff.).
In a context saturated with confusion and even doubt, Jeremiah surprisingly launches with a straight-forward affirmation about God: “You know, Yahweh” (Jer 15:15a). Besides the pronoun “You” being an emphatic addition to his attestation, the verb itself ultimately takes in the LORD’s attribute of omniscience. Even though at the end of the following seven requests for divine intervention there comes one for the LORD to know about the prophet’s adverse circumstances, Jeremiah could not ignore the inescapable realities of inscripturated revelation: God does know (cf. what Jeremiah already said in 12:3). Yahweh is cognizant of our circumstances! He does understand!
Upon this precious platform of Yahweh’s full awareness of his situation, the prophet lifts up five passionate prayer requests: Remember me…Visit me…Avenge me…Don’t take me…Know (i.e., my burden of reproach).
“Remember me” has nothing to do with an assumption of divine amnesia but is a call for God to take special note of one in need so as to act. As a prayer request in times of crisis, it occurs often throughout the Old Testament (e.g., Judges 16:28; Neh 6:14; Job 7:7; 10:9; Pss 25:6-7; 89:47,50; Is 38:3; Lam 3:19; 5:1; etc.). Let me point out one more example, Psalm 106:4, since just like Jeremiah, that psalmist adds to his request for remembrance one for divine visitation.
As already noted our prophet’s second request in 15:15 translated literally is “Visit me!” The Hebrew word exhibits both positive and negative applications, i.e., either “visit” to rescue and/or care for or “visit” in judgment. Here obviously the former is in view. Therefore, some modern translations render it by “take notice of me” (NASB), “take note of me” (HCSB), “care for me” (NIV), etc. (for some helpful parallel occurrences see Gen 21:1; Exod 3:16 [KJV]; 4:31 [KJV]; Ruth 1:6). Obviously an historically mercifiul precedent of divine condescension led Jeremiah to voice this request.
His third request takes on the form of an imprecation. Most recently it brings back the plea of 11:20 wherein he had presented his case for justice before the Chief Justice of the universe. Here in 15:15 he condenses his appeal with these words, “Avenge me against my persecutors” (HCSB). Jeremiah well knew, as we too must always keep in mind, that vengeance uniquely belongs to the LORD (Deut 32:35). Furthermore, there’s another fact that servants of God must ever recognize and regard, our antagonists in ministry are actually the inveterate opponents of God Himself. All of us have been sufficiently warned about these things (cf., e.g., 1 Sam 8:7; John 15:18ff.). And beyond the sufferings encountered on the part of faithful middle-men mouth-pieces is the promise of future reward (cf., e.g., Luke 6:22-23). Amazing grace!
Speaking of grace the next negatively phrased request is predicated upon it. This grace which constitutes the basis for his fourth request is God’s patience, His forbearance, His long-suffering. The Hebrew idiom is long of nose (i.e., it takes a long time before the LORD’s anger ignites), and it conceptually relates to a New Testament parallel, the compound Greek word for this kind of patience (i.e., long-suffering; cf., e.g., Rom 2:4; 9:22; 1 Pet 3:20; 2 Pet. 3:15).
It is not insignificant that this divine attribute of God being long-suffering relates directly to the prophet himself. There is an important shift of focus as Jeremiah moves from the beacon he had aimed at his persecutors (i.e. plea #3) to the spotlight he is now aiming at his own life (i.e. plea #4). As he voices this request for God not to take him away, presumably he is acknowledging that because of his own selfish interests especially manifested through his multiple complaints about his ministry, Yahweh would be just in ‘pulling his ticket’! There’s a lesson for all of us in this: Don’t presume upon the LORD’s merciful long-suffering.
Finally (i.e. plea #5), comes that request for God to know what He already perfectly knows. Indeed, it was for Yahweh’s sake that Jeremiah was experiencing intensifying resistance. Remember, once again, that for faithful servants of God this is not to be looked upon as a strange phenomenon (cf. esp. 1 Pet 4:12ff.).
Jeremiah goes into reminiscence mode in verse 16 testifying that “Your words were found, and I ate them. Your words became a delight to me and the joy of my heart for I am called by Your name, LORD God of Hosts” (HCSB). In the first part of this verse Jeremiah shared in common the experience of others like Ezekiel and the Apostle John (cf. Ezek 2:8; 3:3; Rev 10:9-10). We would also do well to remember in general the testimonies about the satisfaction of the words from God’s Word in Psalm 119:1-2, 16, 24, 47, 72, 92, 127, 143, etc.
The final explanatory clause of verse 16 is also pregnant with significance. When the prophet says literally “for (or) indeed Your name was called over me, O Yahweh, God of Hosts,” he is acknowledging God’s ownership of and sovereignty over him. This constitutes a further elucidation of the basis of his calling.
Verse 17 expresses an historical characterization of his life since that call, possibly with a mixture of a modicum of obedience a la Psalms 1:1; 26:3ff; etc. and a whole lot of divine causation: “I never sat in the company of revelers, never made merry with them; I sat alone because your hand was on me and you had filled me with indignation” (NIV). His boldness rivals that of Habakkuk (cf. 1:2-4; 1:12-2:1) with a special emphasis on the divinely catalyzed results of being ostracized to the point of total isolation. He furthermore attributes his own gnawing resentment to Yahweh’s doing.
Out of this spiritually unstable condition the prophet responds to God with the following series of knee-jerk interrogatives: “Why has my pain been perpetual and my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will You indeed be to me like a deceptive stream with water that is unreliable?” (v. 18; NASB). The bold accusations of the first part of this verse are directed straight forward into the very face of God. The final simile, however, with its setting grounded in a predominant geographical feature of the Holy Land, seems to be even more accusatory (cf. the dry wadis that Job illustratively uses to make his point in Job 6:15-20). The more dynamic rendering of verse 18b in HCSB captures the bold caricature of Yahweh employed by Jeremiah: “You truly have become like a mirage to me – water that is not reliable.” The bar of the prophet’s culpability in his voicing of this bold accusation against God surely must have been raised several notches in view of the truth which heightened the indictments he had leveled against his sinful audience back in 2:13 wherein he himself recognized Yahweh to be “the fountain of living waters.” We in our ministries, having an even greater revelation of theology proper, would never even think thoughts like that in our hearts let alone voice them – Would we?
Well it seems that it is time (over-time?) for the LORD to stop the prophet’s protestations, at least for the present. And that’s exactly what God does in verses 19-21. After the formulaic introduction of “Therefore, thus (or) so says Yahweh,” comes His primary demand phrased as a condition followed by a promise. Significantly the verb that is employed by Yahweh on both sides of this “if…then” construction is the number one word for repentance in the Old Testament. This is illustrated by the fact that this command was the characterizing challenge brought to Yahweh’s errant people by His mouth-pieces, the prophets (cf. the leading imperative in 2 Kings 17:13). So the sense of verse 19a is: “If you return, i.e., repent, I will restore you [i.e. return you to Myself and the ministry].” So herein Jeremiah is on the receiving end of the same essential message he had been commissioned to deliver to the sinful nation, i.e., repentance.
Permit me to follow a bit of a rabbit trail at this juncture. Without denying one iota of the human responsibility demanded by the if-clause, this particular prophet understood that sinful people would need a bit of a push of divine initiative to obey, he himself not being exempted. This phenomenon of the concurrence of human responsibility and divine initiative comes out quite clearly in the twin uses of that same key term for repentance, turning, returning, restoring, etc. in both Jeremiah 31:18 and Lamentations 5:21. Of course both of these oracles had been delivered by our prophet.
The promise part of verse 19 continues with these words, “Before Me (or) In My presence you will stand.” Such “standing” is a return to his privileged status of being God’s messenger, of serving before Yahweh who had commissioned him.
The next part of verse 19 contains another conditional obligation followed by another divinely guaranteed promise that will follow once that requirement is evidenced: “If you utter what is precious and not what is worthless, you shall be as my mouth” (ESV). Indeed, this imagery of being a mouth-piece for Yahweh, a divinely recognized spokesman, goes all the way back to Exodus 4:12ff. A good example of an application to another prophet would be an important part of Ezekiel’s commission (cf. 3:24-27).
In the last part of verse 19 down through verse 21 the LORD brings back into the picture the issue that precipitated Jeremiah’s protestations, his anguish brought on by the people’s dogged resistance of him. First comes a warning delivered via a word-play, yet another one based upon the repentance word group: “They for their part may turn to you, but as for you, you must not turn to them” (NASB); or more volitionally, “Let this people turn to you, but you must not turn to them” (NIV).
That they would not return to him with broken hearts over their sin is made clear by Yahweh in the last two verses of chapter 15. The particular promise of verse 20a stands in the category of similar assurances that God had already affirmed to Jeremiah (cf., e.g., 1:8, 18-19; 5:14; etc.). Herein the LORD employs the familiar picture of the main defense mechanism of ancient near eastern cities: “And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you but they shall not prevail over you” (ESV).
Most importantly however is the guarantee that the prophet’s defenses would hold up. This assurance comes in the form of a divine promise which reads, “for I am with you to save and deliver you. [This is] the LORD’s declaration” (v.20b; HCSB). For servants throughout all the ages of salvation history, the reality of God’s intimate presence being or going “with” them (and us) is paramount (e.g., cf. Gen 28:15; 31:3; Exod 3:12; Deut 31:6; Josh 1:5; 3:7; Judges 6:16; Mt 28:20). In Jeremiah’s case the divine intentionality was to save and to deliver him, two of the most commonly occurring synonyms for divine rescue in the Old Testament.
The specific nature of that “deliverance” (using the same verb as the immediately preceding infinitive of purpose) stands in the first line of verse 21: “So I will deliver you from the hand of the wicked” (v.21a; NASB). Although the second line uses an additional term for the LORD’s salvation, it synonymously reinforces the first: “And I will redeem you from the grasp [lit. palm] of the violent” (v.21b; NASB). The salvific term used in this line normally bears a ransoming nuance. It was used of God’s original rescue mission of the nation out of Egyptian bondage back in Deuteronomy 7:8, but here the LORD employs it as a promise to protect and defend His prophet. Therefore when Yahweh Himself pledges “I will deliver you from the power of evil people and redeem you from the control of the ruthless” (v.21; HCSB), it’s time for the prophet to roll up the sleeves of his mouth and get back to doing God’s business.
Later on in salvation history, in the midst of all the Apostle Paul’s persecutions he understood and appropriated God’s promises of preservation even to the very end of his life. He lived by the truth he penned in Romans 8:31ff., and so must we: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31; ESV). Hang on to this truth tightly; much resistance and many rejections are coming down our 21st century pike.