Following the editorial superscription (1:1-3), the book opens with the prophetic call of Jeremiah (1:4-10), supplemented by two vision oracles for the people of Judah (1:11-12,13-16) and a message of encouragement for Jeremiah himself (1:17-19). There is an introductory formula ("The word of the Lord came to me") for the first three sections (1:4,11,13). The shift to the final section is marked in the Hebrew with an emphatic singular "you" (1:17). This yields the following ABB'A' structure for these introductory prophecies:
encouragement to Jeremiah (1:4-10)
vision oracle (1:11-12)
vision oracle (1:13-16)
encouragement to Jeremiah (1:17-19)
The purpose of the prophecies presented here is to set the tone for the entire book that is to follow. Four primary themes are evident. The strongest theme is for Jeremiah himself. This is the theme of encouragement in the face of opposition, stated most succinctly in the repetition of the Lord's statement, "I am with you and will rescue you" (1:8,19). Other statements directed toward Jeremiah reinforce this message: Jeremiah will say what the Lord commands (1:7,17); the Lord himself touches Jeremiah's mouth and places his words in Jeremiah's mouth (1:9-10); the Lord has made Jeremiah "a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall" against his opponents (1:18). Those opponents are identified as "the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land" (1:18). So, Jeremiah is being encouraged to stand up under the opposition which will arise from the leaders of his own people. The second theme is that Jeremiah's message will be a mixture of doom and hope. He is appointed "... to destroy... and to build..." (1:10). The Lord will destroy Jerusalem, but that will not be his final act; there will follow a time of rebuilding. A third theme is the theme of the sovereignty of God. This is implied by the Lord's appointing Jeremiah "over nations and kingdoms" (1:10). This includes Judah, as well as many other nations. This theme of sovereignty is brought out particularly in the first vision oracle, when the Lord says, "I am watching to see that my word is fulfilled" (1:12). The second vision oracle brings out the final theme: God's punishment is a response primarily to the people's infidelity/idolatry (1:16). The exact nature of their sin is expanded and elaborated upon in the book, but this is seen as the root problem.
1:1-3 The first three verses stand alone as a superscription to the entire book. This is typical of many prophetic books (cp. Isa 1:1; Hos 1:1; Joel 1:1; Amos 1:1; Micah 1:1; Zeph 1:1). This superscription differs from those others primarily in the fact that it is considerably longer. In spite of its greater length, this superscription is not comprehensive in its historical references. The three reigns mentioned (of Josiah, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah) are the final three extended reigns of Judahite kings. However, two brief reigns which occurred between these longer ones are not mentioned, and no reference is made to the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who conquered Jerusalem and ruled Jeremiah's homeland the last several years of his life. This suggests that the writer is being general in his choice of chronological markers for the prophetic career of Jeremiah. This might explain why he fails to extend the time frame to include events which occurred after the fall of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 39-44).
The term words (v. 1) does not refer to individual words but to messages, prophetic oracles. A prophecy of Jeremiah from the Lord commonly is introduced as "the word of the Lord" (1:4,11,13; 2:1,4; etc.). Jeremiah is identified as the son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth. It is likely that these priests of Anathoth were descendants of Eli and Abiathar, priests who at one time presided over worship before the Ark but who were exiled to Anathoth early in the reign of Solomon. This places Jeremiah in a rather unusual position as there is an almost automatic antagonism between Jeremiah and the Zadokite priests who preside over temple worship. This inbred antagonism explains the bitterness one senses in some of the conversations between Jeremiah and the temple priests (e.g., Jer 20:1-6; 29:24-32).
There is some discussion over the significance of the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah (627 B.C.), the date that Jeremiah's career begins. Most commentators have taken this to be the year of Jeremiah's prophetic call, described in the succeeding verses. There are a few, however, who argue that this is the year of Jeremiah's birth. There is nothing concrete upon which to base either position. The primary consideration is the number of prophecies spoken by Jeremiah during the reign of Josiah. This is a notoriously knotty problem, as there is only one explicit reference in the book to the speaking of a prophecy in the days of Josiah (3:6). Several prophecies in chapters 1-20 are variously dated throughout Jeremiah's career, but relatively few are placed by anyone within Josiah's reign. There is also a mention by Jeremiah in "the fourth year of Jehoiakim" (605 B.C.) that he had been receiving prophecies from the Lord for twenty-three years (Jer 25:3). This could be interpreted either as a reference back to his call or to his birth (since the Lord says, "before you were born I set you apart"; 1:5). The resolution of this issue is not crucial to our understanding of Jeremiah's words.
1:4-10 The actual "call" of Jeremiah—from a form-critical point of view—entails only Jeremiah 1:4-10. It follows a pattern which one finds in several instances in the Old Testament, when a prophet or some other leader is chosen by the Lord. The pattern is this: (1) the Lord speaks or appears to the one being called; (2) the recipient voices some reason(s) why he/she is not fit for the task to which he/she is being called; (3) the Lord promises to make up whatever is lacking, so that they are fit; and (4) the person accepts the task or is given his first assignment. This sequence of events serves to demonstrate the person's humility. The person recognizes that, on his own, he is not able to do the job to which God is calling him. As he successfully fulfills that job, he and the reader are to recognize that he does so only because the Lord is working through him.
The Lord's initial remarks to Jeremiah have long been of significance to biblical theologians. At first blush, it appears to be a straightforward claim of predestination, that the Lord decided before Jeremiah's birth that he would be a prophet, and there was nothing Jeremiah could do to thwart that decision. Two considerations should make one cautious about reaching firm conclusions too quickly, though. First, it is possible that this is an example of hyperbole, that God is overstating the fact to emphasize one aspect of it. In this case he is emphasizing that he, God, has chosen this path for Jeremiah; this is not a claim by Jeremiah for which he is wanting divine support. This is not to deny the veracity of the Lord's words, but simply to say one cannot deny him the right to use hyperbole to make a point, if he so desires. There are actually numerous examples of the Lord using hyperbole. For example, the Lord, speaking through Jeremiah, repeatedly says that the people worshiped idols "on every high hill and under every spreading tree" (2:20; 3:6; etc.). It is not necessary to argue that every single "spreading tree" in Judah had to be used as a place of idolatry to make this statement true. It is simply a way of saying that idolatry was widely practiced, that it was "everywhere." There is evidence from the ancient Near East that such hyperbolic claims were common for political and religious leaders. See Holladay, Jeremiah 1, pp. 27-28; Lundbom, Jeremiah 1-20, pp. 230-231. It could be similar to statements made by parents today, when they claim something like the following: "I knew my son was going to be a doctor from the day he was born." But even assuming that it is a straightforward statement of fact, one cannot deduce from this that God has predestined the life of every human being. Jeremiah might be the exception rather than the rule. Moreover, one cannot assume that Jeremiah was still without a say in the matter, that he could not reject the Lord's call. Otherwise, why would God need to encourage him?
In the Hebrew, each of the three lines in this verse ends with the verb—I knew you... I set you apart... I appointed you. This sort of parallelism is common in Hebrew poetry, indicating that the three verbs are to be understood as synonyms. The verb "to know" (יָדַע, yādaʿ) is used here with the nuance of choosing someone for a special task (see the footnote in the NIV; cp. Amos 3:2), while also indicating a close, personal relationship between the chooser and the one chosen. The verb for "set apart" (הִקְדִישׁ, hiqdîš), is derived from a root meaning "holy." The form used here is often translated "make holy" or "sanctify." This passage indicates that "sanctification" is more than placing someone in an exalted state; there is also the expectation that the one sanctified will perform special tasks and responsibilities. The verb translated appointed literally means "gave"; it is different from the word for "appointed" in verse 10.
Jeremiah raises the objection that he is only a child (cp. 1 Kgs 3:7). The word for child (נַעַר, naʿar) can refer to an unmarried male of any age, ranging from infancy (Exod 2:6; 1 Sam 1:22) to young adulthood (2 Sam 18:5,12), although it most often refers to an adolescent. The more common term for an infant is yeled (יֶלֶד; see 2 Sam 12:15-23). It is most likely that Jeremiah is a teenager when he makes this statement. Jeremiah's reason for making this point is not to disqualify himself solely because of his age, but because one's age influenced how seriously others would take them when they spoke. For example, Elihu hesitated to speak in the presence of Job and his friends because he was younger than they (Job 32:6-7). Similarly, Jeremiah recognizes that his age immediately makes the authority of his words suspect in the minds of his listeners.
God's response is an acknowledgment of this social connection between age and respect for one's words. The people will be inclined to ignore Jeremiah because of his young age, but Jeremiah is not going in his own name and is not speaking for himself. He goes where God sends him; he speaks what God commands. The exhortation, do not be afraid, is not backed up with a revelation about what will happen to him and that he will be happy with the outcome, but on the unqualified promise by the Lord, I am with you, no matter what happens (cp. Exod 3:12; Judg 6:12). The significance of this is immense. So often, people look for external, physical proof of God's presence in and approval of their lives when the only "proof" he might offer is that he is with them. Such proof cannot be verified; it is only known in the heart of the believer.
The Lord now touches Jeremiah's mouth, symbolically demonstrating that he is the Lord's "mouth" to his people. This places Jeremiah in an elite group among the prophets, as similar acts are reported only in the cases of Moses (Exod 4:10-17) and Isaiah (Isa 6:5-7). Further, what the Lord promises here fulfills the description of "the prophet like Moses" given in Deuteronomy 18:18. This helps to explain why some associated Jesus with Jeremiah (Matt 16:14). The Lord appoints Jeremiah over nations and kingdoms. Indirectly, this assumes the sovereignty of God over all nations. But there are also at least two other significant conclusions to be drawn from this statement. On the one hand, in this statement the Lord claims authority over nations to punish them or bless them as he sees fit (Jer 18:1-11; 27-28; 46-51). This includes the "nation" of Judah (see Jer 25:17ff.). On the other hand, the Lord is also concerned to give encouragement to his people in exile, including those northern tribes who were exiled by the Assyrians a century earlier. This statement serves as encouragement by letting those in exile know that the Lord is still in charge of the kingdoms who hold them captive. If he says they will be released, they need not despair that he might lack the power and authority to do so.
The Lord claims (and demonstrates) his authority over earthly kingdoms by declaring what their fate will be. Jeremiah, speaking by God's authority, will proclaim God's plans to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant them. These six verbs form an interesting parallelism (see also 18:7,9; 24:6; 31:28,38-40; 42:10; 45:4). The first four denote destruction, while the latter two denote construction. The first and last are agricultural terms, while the four in between are used primarily regarding human structures. Viewed together, these six verbs constitute a sort of snapshot of Jeremiah's career. Jeremiah will prophesy the destruction of Judah (and other nations) during most of his career (to uproot... and overthrow), but toward the end he will shift to a more positive message of reconstruction for all of God's people (to build and to plant).
1:11-12 This is the first of two vision oracles, of which there are a few other examples in Jeremiah (e.g., 24:3). These two are excellent examples of "sermon illustrations" that Jeremiah uses throughout his book. This one involves a Hebrew pun which the English reader cannot see. The terms for almond (שָׁקָד, šāqād) and watching (שֹׁקֵד, šōqēd) are almost identical in Hebrew. By merely pointing to an almond branch, Jeremiah can make the point to his audience that the Lord is watching —is keeping watch like a guard over—his prophecies to ensure that they are carried out. There will be opposition to and refutations of Jeremiah's prophecies, but the Lord's words will not fail, because he himself will "see" to it.
1:13-16 This vision oracle introduces the "enemy from the north." The imprecision of the designation has led to several interpretations of what Jeremiah has in mind. The most likely referent for this "enemy" is Babylon as the Babylonian armies would normally march west from Mesopotamia into Syrian territory before proceeding south against Judah. There has been speculation, however, that this was originally a prophecy about Scythian incursions (Scythians lived north of Syria) into the region between the Assyrian and Babylonian dominions. The main impetus for looking for such an enemy is the fact that the Babylonians do not enter Judah until 605 B.C., more than two decades after Jeremiah's call. A more immediate fulfillment of this early prophecy would be welcome, especially to support the belief that Jeremiah began prophesying in 627 B.C. But the absence of clear biblical references to these Scythian incursions makes them a questionable fulfillment of Jeremiah's words.
The balance of this prophecy in verses 15-16 seems to refer to the total overthrow of the city of Jerusalem which finally takes place in 586 B.C.Jeremiah prophesies that the Lord is going to summon all the peoples of the northern kingdoms and bring them against Judah (1:15). He makes the same prediction in 25:9, in that case specifying that Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon will be with them. He also says that kings will come and set up their thrones in the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem (1:15). A later description of the capture of Jerusalem includes the note that "all the officials of the king of Babylon came and took seats in the Middle Gate" (39:3). Jeremiah further prophesies that this "enemy" will come against all the towns of Judah (1:15). Scythian attacks would have been scattered incidents, while this sounds like a full-fledged invasion and subjugation. Related to this is the recognition that Jeremiah repeatedly links the coming of the Babylonian armies to the people's worship of other gods, which is mentioned in 1:16. This can be coupled with the fact that the people in Jerusalem seem to interpret the appearance of the Babylonians in Judah during the reigns of Jehoiakim and Jeconiah (605 and 598 B.C.) as the fulfillment of Jeremiah's warnings about coming destruction (cp. Jer 24:7-10; 27:16-28:4; Ezek 11:14-17). So, while it is possible that Jeremiah's "enemy from the north" might have referred to Scythians on certain occasions, the phrase in Jeremiah primarily refers to the Babylonians.
1:17-19 The Lord now returns to the encouragement of Jeremiah as the focus of his attention. He has given Jeremiah a taste of what he will be prophesying to the people of Judah, and he recognizes that this will not be an assignment that Jeremiah will cheerfully accept. Like Isaiah, it would be natural for Jeremiah to ask, "How long, O Lord?" (Isa 6:11). So the Lord addresses this before Jeremiah even has a chance to react. He tells Jeremiah, Get yourself ready! Literally, this is, "Gird on your loins!" This is the language of war, of military preparation. Jeremiah is to expect a hostile audience. They will consider him a threat to their religious beliefs and wish to silence him, so he must be ready for a fight. The Lord then returns to one of the first things he had said in Jeremiah's initial call—say to them whatever I command you (v. 17; cp. 1:7). The prior statement by itself sounded like a statement of empowerment, as if it would give Jeremiah the respect that he felt he lacked in talking to an older audience. Now we see that saying what the Lord commands will actually put him at risk. Even though these are the words of the Lord, they will not win for him acceptance; instead, they will have just the opposite effect. Rather than emboldening him, speaking the words of the Lord is a terrifying prospect.
This leads into the second half of verse 17. The reason why the word of the Lord is terrifying is because of the response it evokes from those to whom it is directed. It is the word of the Lord, but they will retaliate against the Lord's messenger for its contents. This rejection of the Lord's message is what threatens to terrify Jeremiah. The Lord "reassures" him initially with a threat of his own. If Jeremiah allows himself to be terrified by their threats of retaliation, then he will terrify Jeremiah even more. So, Jeremiah's only protection against those who would terrify him is to trust in the one who can terrify him even more.
In a sense, Jeremiah is just like his audience. He, like they, has to decide whether to trust in the Lord. They face the threat of the Babylonians, a threat which they can withstand only if they will trust wholeheartedly in the Lord as he reveals himself through the prophecies of Jeremiah. Jeremiah faces the threat of his own people, a threat which he can withstand only by trusting in the Lord.
The Lord does not wish to be respected because he is a greater threat, though. He does not wish to bully Jeremiah into obedience. Instead, he induces Jeremiah with promises of protection. He promises to make Jeremiah a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall (v. 18; cp. 15:20). These are fortifications which will withstand the fiercest attacks. The Lord then spells out who the attackers will be—the leaders of his own people, in his own land. Now, in contrast to the threatening mood of verse 17, he promises protection against the threat, repeating what he had said earlier: I am with you and will rescue you. As before, he does not seek to minimize the threat. It is those with power in the nation who will be seeking to hurt and silence Jeremiah. And as before, he promises nothing concrete, only that, somehow, he will be "with" Jeremiah. He does not say how he will be with Jeremiah; he does not promise the avoidance of pain and suffering. Rather, he gives a nebulous promise to "be with" Jeremiah, and he expects that to suffice. Acceptance of this call requires a measure of faith on Jeremiah's part. He will occasionally complain and worry about his physical well-being, and he even tries to avoid doing at times what the Lord demands of him. Yet he ultimately trusts in the Lord, prophesying what the Lord has revealed to him and relying on the Lord to be with him in the face of vehement opposition.