“Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant'” (Jer 1:9-10, NRSV)
The mention of the prophet Jeremiah’s name to most Christians and Bible students conjures up the image of the “weeping prophet,” a designation based on the prophet’s impassioned use of lament and his own wish: “Oh that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people” (9:1). It was this trait of empathy for those he continually chastised that differentiates Jeremiah from the other Old Testament prophets. It is significant that Jeremiah’s lamentation over the sins of his people, which led to the capture and destruction of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar in 587/6 BCE, has given rise to the English word “jeremiad,” meaning “a prolonged lamentation or complaint.” Traditionally, Jeremiah has been credited with the authorship of the Book of Lamentations, which laments the destruction of Jerusalem in 586, though his authorship is no longer generally accepted. Some have further sought to investigate how far Jeremiah’s world of lamentation reveals about the inner feelings of the prophet.
Jeremiah was called, before his birth into the priesthood, to be God’s prophet (1:1-5). He was born circa 655 BC, at a time when the Southern Kingdom of Judah found itself wedged between two world superpowers, Egypt and Assyria. Jeremiah’s call to the prophetic office coincided with the period of sweeping reform and spiritual awakening that had been initiated by King Josiah. As part of his call, Jeremiah was reminded by God that long before he was formed in the womb, God had set him apart as a prophet to the nations (Jeremiah means “Jehovah has appointed”). God put Jeremiah together for a purpose, and He was intentionally sending him on a mission He had planned beforehand. Jeremiah was hesitant to accept his call because of his misplaced focus: “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (1:6; see also Moses, Exod 4:1-13). But God refocused Jeremiah’s gaze to where it should have been in the first place: on God instead of on himself. The question for Jeremiah was not so much whether he was ready and capable; the question was whether God was ready to enlist him in His service.
Jeremiah’s mission was clear: He was God’s emissary to Judah and the surrounding nations “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Though the people of Judah perceived their greatest threat to be from outside their nation (Egypt and Assyria), Jeremiah reminded them that what they really had to fear was far closer within than without. It was the sin within their own hearts: “The sin of Judah is written with an iron pen; with a diamond point it is engraved on the tablet of their hearts, and on the horns of their altars. The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse-who can understand it” (17:1, 9). Though the Judeans would not heed Jeremiah’s message because it was contrary to what they wanted to hear, he persisted. Undoubtedly, they wanted to hear a message of prosperity, stability, and peace with the warring nations around them. Yet Jeremiah’s message cut to the heart of the matter. Things got worse for Jeremiah. He was met with opposition, put in stocks, and was branded a traitor by his own people. The people would not listen until they were overrun by Nebuchadnezzar and most of them deported to Babylon.
However, Jeremiah was successful because he remained faithful to his call. Moreover, within the huge prophetic oracles of his witness, we find more than tears and messages of doom about the evils of Judah. There are startling promises of hope in the possibility of Judah’s repentance, grounded squarely in the amazing grace of the covenant-keeping God (31:31-34; 32: 26-44; 46:27-28). Like the people of Judah, we, too, may be tempted to look outside ourselves for danger. We blame the culture, the shifting values, and our enemies across the globe, when we should look first and foremost inside ourselves. Because our hearts are “engraved with sin,” we need a Savior who can turn our stony hearts back to God. May the message of Jeremiah lead us to repentance!