The Prophetic Calling of Jeremiah
We know more about the life of Jeremiah than we do about any other Old Testament prophet. The biographical facts in his book help us understand better his work as a prophet. Jeremiah had such an effect on history that, even at the time of Jesus, he was a revered prophetic figure.
At the same time, the prophet’s work, judged by human standards, shows only slight success. Despite decades of fervent warning and pleadings, the people for the most part didn’t listen to the messages he gave them from the Lord.
Nevertheless, despite the opposition, Jeremiah could not be bought or sold; he stood as “a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall” (Jer. 1:18, NIV), not in his own strength but in the Lord’s.
Jeremiah’s lot in life wasn’t a happy one in many ways. His calling brought him suffering, woe, rejection, even imprisonment. Worse still was the fact that so many of these troubles came from the very ones whom he was seeking to help, seeking to point in the right direction. Thus, in his own way, Jeremiah prefigured what Jesus Himself would face hundreds of years later in the same land.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, October 3.
The prophets, according to their calling, were determined protectors of God’s law. They stood on the ground of the covenant and the Ten Commandments (Jer. 11:2–6). Micah 3:8 gives one summary of the prophets’ work, which was “to declare unto Jacob his transgression, and to Israel his sin.” And the concept of sin, of course, is meaningless apart from the law (see Rom. 7:7).
God’s judgment was not inevitable, but it would come if the people did not turn from their evil ways. Change, however, is not so easy, especially when people get accustomed to doing evil. Who hasn’t seen how people get used to the evil that, at one time, had appalled them? The message of the prophets was to let people see just how bad their evil was and what the consequences were of not turning away from it. This message, of course, wasn’t the prophets’; it was the Lord’s.
The prophets do not mention how God’s Word was revealed to them or how they heard it. At times God spoke to them directly; other times the Holy Spirit touched them in dreams or visions or, perhaps, through a “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). However their messages came to them, the prophets had a mission, not only to transmit God’s will to the common people but also, if need be, to deliver it before kings, emperors, and generals.
This task involved great responsibility: if they told the truth, these powerful people could kill them; but if they did not represent the truth, God’s judgment could also come upon them. To be a prophet is a heavy calling, and from what we can tell from the Bible, those given that call took it seriously.
We can be glad they did, for their messages have come down to us in the Bible. In that sense, their words still speak, even today. The question now, as in Jeremiah’s time, is the same: Will we listen?
After he strengthened his throne, Solomon, in a conflict with Adonijah over succession, removed Abiathar the priest from his office and sent him into exile back to his hometown, Anathoth, believed to be about three miles northeast of Jerusalem. Hilkiah, Jeremiah’s father, was a member of a priestly family that lived at Anathoth. Some have speculated that Jeremiah’s family may have descended from Abiathar. Either way, we know from Jeremiah 1:1 that the prophet had an exalted lineage. Thus, we can see here that all through prophetic history the Lord has called all types of people—shepherds, rabbis, fishermen, priests—to the prophetic office.
“A member of the Levitical priesthood, Jeremiah had been trained from childhood for holy service. In those happy years of preparation he little realized that he had been ordained from birth to be ‘a prophet unto the nations;’ and when the divine call came, he was overwhelmed with a sense of his unworthiness. ‘Ah, Lord God!’ he exclaimed, ‘behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child.’ Jeremiah 1:5, 6.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 407.
The priests were to be the moral and spiritual leaders of the nation; they had been given important roles that impacted most every area of the nation’s spiritual life. Some had been faithful to that task; others abused and violated it in ways that we can’t imagine. As we will soon read in the book of Jeremiah, the prophet had very strong words to speak against these unfaithful priests, who had proved unworthy of the responsibilities and calling that they had been entrusted with.
Just like other prophets in the Old Testament (and like Paul in the New; see Gal. 1:1, Rom. 1:1), Jeremiah didn’t waffle in regard to who called him. He was very clear in these verses and, in fact, all through the book of Jeremiah, that what he was speaking was “the word of the Lord,” which had come to him. No doubt this fervent conviction is what enabled him to press on ahead despite vehement opposition and toil, suffering, and trials.
Jeremiah’s calling happened in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah, dated to about 627 or 626 b.c. We do not know the exact year the prophet was born, or the exact age he began his ministry. In his mind, though, as we will see, he deemed himself a child, someone too young for the task given him.
God chose Jeremiah to be a prophet before his birth. God set him aside from the moment of his conception for this prophetic role. The words translated “I sanctified you” (vs. 5, NKJV) come from a verb that means “to be hallowed,” “to be holy,” and to “sanctify,” among other things. It definitely has a sacred and religious connotation to it, one tied also with the sanctuary service itself. Indeed, the word for “sanctuary” comes from the same root word. The idea contained in it is that something or someone is “set apart for a holy purpose.” This is what God had planned for Jeremiah, even before his birth. These texts don’t teach preexistence or predestination; they teach, instead, God’s foreknowledge.
Despite the Lord’s assurance that Jeremiah had been divinely chosen for this task, the young man was frightened and didn’t feel up to it. Perhaps knowing the spiritual state of people at the time, which wasn’t good, and knowing what needed to be done, Jeremiah didn’t want the job.
None of those men, for whatever reasons, felt up to the task. Perhaps that was a crucial prerequisite for the job of a prophet: a sense of one’s own unworthiness and inability for such a crucial and important task. A spokesman for the Creator? No wonder they all shrank from the task, at least at first.
Notice Jeremiah’s first response after being called. He immediately talked about his inability to speak well, as did Moses. Isaiah, too, in his response, made mention of his mouth, his lips. In all cases, they knew that, whatever else their calling involved, it would involve speaking and communication. They were going to get messages from God and, as such, would be responsible for proclaiming those messages to others. Unlike today, where they could build a Web site or send a text message, this communication would so often have to be face to face. Imagine having to stand before hostile leaders or unruly people and give them sharp words of rebuke and warning. The reluctance of these soon-to-be prophets is understandable.
The prophet is God’s witness; his job is to speak not for himself but for God alone. Jeremiah wasn’t called to find solutions to the problems of the nation or to become a great personality or charismatic leader whom the people would follow. Jeremiah had the singular mission to transmit the words of God to the people and their leaders. The emphasis here is not on the human or on human potential; it is on God’s sovereignty and power alone. The prophet was to point the people to the Lord, in whom alone was the solution to all their problems. It is, of course, no different for us today.
Most Bible translations translate the Hebrew expression in verse 11 as “the branch of an almond tree.” These translations, however, miss the Hebrew play on words here. The word translated “almond tree” has the same root as the verb “to keep watch,” which appears in verse 12, when the Lord says that He is going to “keep watch” over His word to fulfill it.
One could argue that the central message of the entire book of Jeremiah is found in verses 11 and 12. God’s word will be fulfilled. One day everyone will see events happen just as God said they would. God wants His people to turn away from their sins. He has offered grace and forgiveness, but He does not force anyone to obey and be healed. If His people will not respond to Him, His words of judgment and punishment will certainly be fulfilled as His words against Israel were fulfilled in the book of Jeremiah.
As we can see, too, God’s words here were not just for the people. The Lord was speaking directly to Jeremiah himself, warning him to be prepared for the opposition that he would face. No matter what happened, Jeremiah could have the assurance from God that “I am with you.” He would, as we will see, need it.
Don’t we all?
Further Thought: Martin Luther wrote about the prophet in the introduction of his commentary to the book of Jeremiah: “Jeremiah was a sad prophet, who lived in a deplorable and difficult period and, what is more, his prophetic service was extremely difficult as he was struggling and fighting with a bad-tempered and stubborn people. Apparently he did not achieve much success because he experienced how his enemies became more and more evil. They tried to kill the prophet several times. They pressed hard against him, whipping him several times. Yet, he would live to see with his own eyes how his country was devastated and his people taken into exile.”
“For forty years Jeremiah was to stand before the nation as a witness for truth and righteousness. In a time of unparalleled apostasy he was to exemplify in life and character the worship of the only true God. During the terrible sieges of Jerusalem he was to be the mouthpiece of Jehovah. He was to predict the downfall of the house of David and the destruction of the beautiful temple built by Solomon. And when imprisoned because of his fearless utterances, he was still to speak plainly against sin in high places. Despised, hated, rejected of men, he was finally to witness the literal fulfillment of his own prophecies of impending doom, and share in the sorrow and woe that should follow the destruction of the fated city.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 408.