Chapter One.
The Reluctant Prophet

Jeremiah 1

For a people to boast in the glory of the past, and to deny the secret that made the past, is to perish."

—G. Campbell Morgan

Jeremiah was perhaps twenty years old when God's call came to him in the thirteenth year of Josiah's reign (626 B.C.). Why did he hesitate to accept God's call? Let me suggest some reasons.

1. The Task Was Demanding (Jer. 1:1)

Jeremiah's father Hilkiah was a priest as was his father before him, and young Jeremiah was also expected to serve at the altar. He may even have been at the age when he would have stepped into his place of ministry when God called him to be a prophet.

Since serving as a prophet was much more demanding than serving as a priest, it's no wonder Jeremiah demurred. If I had my choice, I'd take the priesthood! For one thing, a priest's duties were predictable. Just about everything he had to do was written down in the Law. Thus, all the priest had to do was follow instructions. Day after day, there were sacrifices to offer, lepers to examine, unclean people to exclude from the camp, cleansed people to reinstate, official ceremonies to observe, a sanctuary to care for, and the Law to teach. No wonder some of the priests said, "Oh, what a weariness!" (Mal. 1:13, nkjv)

The ministry of a prophet, however, was quite another matter, because you never knew from one day to the next what the Lord would call you to say or do. The priest worked primarily to conserve the past by protecting and maintaining the sanctuary ministry, but the prophet labored to change the present so the nation would have a future. When the prophet saw the people going in the wrong direction, he sought to call them back to the right path.

Priests dealt with externals such as determining ritual uncleanness and offering various sacrifices that could never touch the hearts of the people (Heb. 10:1-18), but the prophet tried to reach and change hearts. At least sixty-six times the word "heart" is found in the Book of Jeremiah, for he is preeminently the prophet of the heart.

Priests didn't preach to the crowds very much but ministered primarily to individuals with various ritual needs. Prophets, on the other hand, addressed whole nations, and usually the people they addressed didn't want to hear the message. Priests belonged to a special tribe and therefore had authority and respect, but a prophet could come from any tribe and had to prove his divine call. Priests were supported from the sacrifices and offerings of the people, but prophets had no guaranteed income.

Jeremiah would have had a much easier time serving as priest. Therefore, it's no wonder his first response was to question God's call. Offering sacrifices was one thing, but preaching the Word to hardhearted people was quite something else. When you read his book, you will see a number of pictures of his ministry that reveal how demanding it was to serve the Lord as a faithful prophet. In his ministry, Jeremiah had to be

Does this sound like an easy task?

2. The Times Were Difficult (Jer. 1:2-3; 2 Kings 21-25; 2 Chron. 33-36)

I suppose there never is a time when serving God is easy, but some periods in history are especially difficult for spiritual ministry, and Jeremiah lived in such an era. Consider what the history of Judah was like during Jeremiah's lifetime.

Rebellion instead of obedience. To begin with, Jeremiah was born during the reign of King Manasseh, the most evil man who ever reigned over the kingdom of Judah (2 Kings 21:1-18). The son of godly Hezekiah, Manasseh came to the throne when only twelve years old, and the officials around him easily influenced him toward idolatry. "Manasseh seduced them [the people of Judah] to do more evil than the nations whom the Lord had destroyed before the Children of Israel" (v. 9, nkjv). When Manasseh died, his evil son Amon continued his father's evil practices.

Thus, Jeremiah grew up in Anathoth at a time when idolatry flourished in Judah, children were offered in sacrifice to idols, the Law of Moses was disregarded and disobeyed, and it looked as though there was no hope for the nation. Godly priests were not greatly appreciated.

Reformation instead of repentance. In 639 B.C., some of Amon's servants assassinated him. Josiah his son became king, reigning until his untimely death in 609. Josiah was quite young when he began to reign, but he had godly counselors like Hilkiah, and thus he sought the Lord. In the twelfth year of his reign, he began to purge the land of idolatry; six years later, he commanded the priests and workers to repair and cleanse the temple. It was during that time that Hilkiah the priest found the Book of the Law in the temple and had it read to the king. This document may have been the entire five books of Moses or just the Book of Deuteronomy.

When the king heard the Law of God read, he was deeply moved. He tore his robes and sent to Huldah the prophetess for instructions from the Lord (2 Kings 22). Her message was that the people had forsaken God and therefore judgment was coming, but because of Josiah's sincere repentance, judgment would not come during his reign.

Josiah didn't wait for the temple repairs to be completed before calling the whole nation to repentance. He made a covenant with the Lord and led the people in renouncing idolatry and returning to the Law of the Lord. Unfortunately, the obedience of many of the people was only a surface thing. Unlike the king, they displayed no true repentance. Jeremiah knew this and boldly announced God's message: "Judah has not turned to Me with her whole heart, but in pretense" (Jer.3:10, nkjv).

Josiah led the nation in a reformation but not in a heart-changing revival. The idols were removed, the temple was repaired, and the worship of Jehovah was restored, but the people had not turned to the Lord with their whole heart and soul.

Politics instead of principle. No sooner did Josiah die on the battlefield and his son become king than the nation quickly returned to idolatry under the rule of Jehoahaz. But Pharaoh Necho removed Jehoahaz from the throne, exiled him to Egypt where he died, and placed his brother Eliakim on the throne, giving him the name Jehoiakim. Jehoiakim, however, was no better than his brother and "did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his fathers had done" (2 Kings 23:37). He taxed the people heavily in order to pay tribute to Egypt, and then he agreed to pay tribute to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. After Jehoiakim reneged on that promise, Nebuchadnezzar took him prisoner to Babylon and took the temple vessels with him (597 B.C.).

Jehoiakim's son Jehoiachin reigned only three months; then his uncle Mattaniah, Josiah's third son (1 Chron. 3:15), was made king and renamed Zedekiah. Zedekiah was the last king of Judah, a weak, vacillating man who feared his officials more than he feared the Lord (Jer. 38:19). "And he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord his God, and humbled not himself before Jeremiah the prophet speaking from the mouth of the Lord" (2 Chron. 36:12). Zedekiah would ask Jeremiah for help while at the same time courting ambassadors from neighboring nations and plotting rebellion against Babylon. He allowed his princes to persecute and even imprison Jeremiah, though he himself had secret meetings with the prophet as if he were seeking God's will.

It's easy for political leaders to invite religious leaders in for consultation and then do exactly what they'd already planned to do. Today, it's good public relations to give people the impression that "religion" is important, but talking to a popular preacher isn't the same as humbling yourself before God.

Jeremiah preached to the nation for forty years, giving them God's promises and warnings; yet he lived to see Jerusalem and his beloved temple destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar's army and his people taken captive to Babylon. Jeremiah ministered in turbulent times and yet remained faithful to the Lord. He exposed the futile foreign policy of the rulers, pleading with them to turn to the Lord with all their hearts and trust God instead of trusting their political allies. Jeremiah is one of Scripture's greatest examples of faithfulness and decisive action in the face of physical danger and national decay.

3. The Servant Was Doubtful (Jer. 1:4-10)

Jeremiah hesitated as he looked at the work before him and the wickedness around him, and when he looked at the weakness within himself, Jeremiah was certain that he wasn't the man for the job.

When it comes to serving the Lord, there's a sense in which nobody is adequate. "And who is sufficient for these things?" (2 Cor. 2:16) asked the great Apostle Paul as he pondered the responsibilities of ministry. Paul then answered his own question. "Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God" (3:5).

When God calls us, however, He isn't making a mistake, and for us to hesitate or refuse to obey is to act on the basis of unbelief and not faith. It's one thing for us to know our own weaknesses, but it's quite something else for us to say that our weaknesses prevent God from getting anything done. Instead of being an evidence of humility, this attitude reeks of pride.

God gave young Jeremiah three wonderful assurances.

God's electing grace (vv. 4-5). One of my seminary professors used to say, "Try to explain divine election and you may lose your mind, but explain it away, and you will lose your soul." God doesn't save us, call us, or use us in His service because we're deserving, but because in His wisdom and grace He chooses to do so. It's grace from start to finish. "But by the grace of God I am what I am," wrote Paul, "and His grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, hut the grace of God which was with me" (1 Cor. 15:10).

Each of the phrases in Jeremiah 1:5 is important. To begin with, God knew Jeremiah, which refers to His sovereign election of His servant. God chose Jeremiah even before he was conceived or formed in his mother's womb. Then God formed Jeremiah and gave him the genetic structure He wanted him to possess. This truth is expressed poetically in Psalm 139:13-16. Jeremiah wasn't too happy about what his birth gave him (Jer. 20:14-18), but the Lord knew what He was doing. What we are is God's gift to us; what we do with it is our gift to Him.

God sanctified Jeremiah even before he was born. This means Jeremiah was set apart by the Lord and for the Lord even before he knew the Lord in a personal way. God would later do the same with Paul (Gal. 1:15). The Lord then ordained Jeremiah to be His prophet to the nations. God's concern from the beginning is that all nations of the earth know His salvation. That's why He called Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3) and set apart the nation of Israel to be His special channel to bring His Word and His Son into the world.

A prophet was a chosen and authorized spokesman for God who declared God's Word to the people. The Hebrew word probably comes from an Arabic root that means "to announce." For example, Moses spoke to Aaron, and Aaron was his spokesman (prophet) before Pharaoh (Ex. 7:1-2). Prophets did more than reveal the future, for their messages had present application to the life of the nation. They were forthtellers more than foretellers, exposing the sins of the people and calling them back to their covenant responsibilities before God.

As God's children, we are chosen and set apart by Him and for Him (Rom. 8:28-30; Eph. 1:3-14). This truth ought to give us great courage as we confront an evil world and seek to serve the Lord. "If God be for us, who can be against us?" (Rom. 8:31)

God's protecting presence (vv. 6-8). God gave young Jeremiah three instructions: Go where I send you, speak what I command you, and don't be afraid of the people. Then He added the great word of promise, "For I am with you to deliver you" (Jer. 1:8, nkjv). He repeated this promise at the end of His call: "'They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you. For I am with you,' says the Lord, 'to deliver you'" (v. 19, nkjv).

Please note that there was a condition attached to this encouraging promise: Jeremiah had to go where God sent him and speak what God told him to speak. He also had to believe God's promise and prove it by not fearing the people. We call Jeremiah "the weeping prophet," and he was (9:1), but he was also a courageous man who faced many dangers and trials and remained true to the Lord. He knew that the Lord was with him, just as we should know that the Lord is with us. "For He Himself has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you.' So we may boldly say: 'The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?'" (Heb. 13:5-6, nkjv)

God's effecting Word (vv. 9-10). When the coal from the heavenly altar touched Isaiah's lips, it purified him (Isa. 6:5-7); when God's hand touched Jeremiah's mouth, it gave him power and authority. God put His words into the prophet's mouth and those words were effective to accomplish His will. God not only gave Jeremiah His words, but He also promised "watch over" those words until they were fulfilled (Jer. 1:12).

The Word of God created the universe: "By the Word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.... For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast" (Ps. 33:6, 9, nkjv). The universe is upheld by the Word of God: "And [Christ] upholding all things by the Word of His power" (Heb. 1:3, nkjv). But God also carries out His purposes on earth by means of His Word: "As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it" (Isa. 55:10-11, niv).

In too many churches today, worship has become entertainment and preaching is merely the happy dispensing of good advice. We need to hear and obey Paul's admonition to Timothy: "Preach the Word" (2 Tim. 4:2). The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth (John 16:13) and works by means of the Word of truth (Ps. 119:43; 2 Tim. 2:15). Jeremiah didn't accomplish God's will on earth by means of clever speeches, cunning diplomacy, or skillful psychology. He heard God's Word, took it to heart, and then proclaimed it fearlessly to the people. God did the rest.

Jeremiah's ministry was difficult because he had to tear down before he could build, and he had to root up before he could plant. In too many ministries there are organizational "structures" that don't belong there and should be torn down because they're hindering progress. Some "plants" are taking up space but bearing no fruit, and they ought to be pulled up. Jesus said, "Every plant which My Heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted" (Matt. 15:13, nkjv).

Any servant of God who feels himself or herself too weak to serve needs to consider these three encouragements. Has God called you? Then He will equip you and enable you. Are you obeying His commands by faith? Then He is with you to protect you. Are you sharing the Word? Then He will accomplish His purposes no matter how the people respond. Jeremiah's name means "Jehovah establishes," and God did establish His servant and his ministry and cared for him to the very end. "But the Lord is faithful, who will establish you and guard you from the evil one" (2 Thes. 3:3, nkjv).

4. The Message Was Dangerous (Jer. 1:11-19)

When you study the Old Testament prophets, you discover that three strands of truth wove their messages together: (1) past sin: the nation has disobeyed God's Law; (2) present responsibility: the people must repent or God will send judgment; and (3) future hope: the Lord will come one day and establish His glorious kingdom.

The Lord didn't give Jeremiah a joyful message of deliverance to announce, but rather a tragic message of judgment. So dangerous was this message that people hearing it called Jeremiah a traitor. He would be misunderstood, persecuted, arrested, and imprisoned—and more than once, his life was in danger. The nation didn't want to hear the truth, but Jeremiah told them plainly that they were defying the Lord, disobeying the Law, and destined for judgment.

God gave Jeremiah three promises to prepare him for this dangerous mission. Two of the promises were in visions.

The almond tree: God's Word will be fulfilled (vv. 11-12). In the Holy Land, the almond tree blossoms in January and gives the first indication that spring is coming. The Hebrew word for almond tree is saqed; while the word for "watch" or "be awake" is soqed. The Lord used this play on words to impress Jeremiah with the fact that He is ever awake to watch over His Word and fulfill it.

Like a husband or wife breaking the marriage vows, the sinful nation had turned from the covenant they had made with the Lord, and now they were giving their love and loyalty to pagan idols. But that covenant would stand, for the Lord had not forgotten it. He had promised to bless them if they obeyed and chasten them if they disobeyed, and He was "watching to see that [His] word is fulfilled" (Jer. 1:12, niv; see Lev. 26; Deut. 28). God had spoken to the nation through the earlier prophets, but the rulers and people wouldn't listen.

Yet the Lord testified against Israel and against Judah, by all of His prophets, namely every seer, saying, "Turn from your evil ways, and keep My commandments and My statutes, according to all the Law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by My servants the prophets." Nevertheless they would not hear, but stiffened their necks, like the necks of their fathers, who did not believe in the Lord their God. And they rejected His statutes and His covenant that He had made with their fathers, and His testimonies which He had testified against them; they followed idols, became idolaters, and went after the nations who were all around them, concerning whom the Lord had charged them that they should not do like them (2 Kings 17:13-15, nkjv).

The boiling pot: God's wrath is coming (vv. 13-16). The nations in the East were often in conflict, each trying to gain supremacy. First the Jewish rulers would turn to Egypt for help, then to Assyria (see Isa. 30-31; Jer. 2:18, 36); and all the while, they failed to trust the Lord and seek His help. But this vision reveals that God is in control of the nations of the world and can use them to accomplish His own purposes. The Lord was even then preparing Babylon in the northto be His servant to chasten His people. For Judah to turn to Egypt for help was futile because Egypt would also fall to Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 46).

When Jeremiah began his ministry, Assyria, not Babylon, was the dominant power in the Near East, and no doubt many of the political experts thought Jeremiah foolish to worry about Babylon in the north. But the people of Judah lived to see Assyria defeated and Egypt crippled as Babylon rose to power and Jeremiah's words came true. Indeed, the thrones of the conquering Babylonian leaders were set in the gate of Jerusalem (39:1-3), and the holy city was eventually destroyed.

The sin God singled out was idolatry (1:16)—forsaking the true God and worshiping the gods they had made with their own hands. In their hypocrisy, the people of Judah maintained the temple worship, but Jehovah was only one of many gods who claimed their devotion. Some of the foreign idols were even brought into the temple! (See Ezek. 8-9.) The false prophets flourished in a ministry that was shallow and popular because they promised peace and never called for repentance (Jer. 5:12-13; 8:11-12; 14:13-22).

When a nation turns from worshiping the true God, its people begin to exploit one another, and that's what happened in Judah. The rich oppressed the poor and the courts would not defend the rights of the oppressed (2:34-35; 5:26-31; 7:1-11). Yet these evil rulers and judges went to the temple faithfully and pretended to be devoted to Jehovah! All they did was make the temple "a den of robbers" (7:11). It was this kind of sin that God was about to judge.

The city, pillar, and wall: God will protect His servant (vv. 17-19). In order to be able to run or work easily, men in that day had to tie their loose robes together with a belt (1 Kings 18:46; 2 Kings 4:29), so "gird up your loins" (Jer. 1:17) meant "Get ready for action!" It might be paraphrased "Tighten your belt! Roll up your sleeves!" "Gird up the loins of your mind" (1 Peter 1:13) means "Pull your mind together and have the right mental attitude in view of our Lord's return."

God repeated the warning He gave earlier (Jer. 1:8) that Jeremiah must not be afraid of the people who would oppose him, because God would defend him. Surrounded by his enemies, the prophet would become a fortified city they couldn't subdue. Forced to stand alone, Jeremiah would become as strong as an iron pillar. Attacked on all sides by kings, princes, priests, and people, he would be as unyielding as a bronze wall. "I am with you to deliver you" was God's reliable promise (vv. 8, 19, nkjv), and in the battle for truth, one with God is a majority.

In spite of the demands of the task and the difficulties of the times, Jeremiah accepted God's call. He knew his own deficiencies, but he also knew that God was greater and would enable him to do the job. The message God gave him was indeed dangerous, but God was watching over His Word to fulfill it and would protect His faithful servant.

Jeremiah made the right decision and as a result became one of the most unpopular prophets in Jewish history. Measured by human standards, his ministry was a failure, but measured by the will of God, he was a great success. It isn't easy to stand alone, to resist the crowd, and to be out of step with the philosophies and values of the times. Jeremiah, however, lived that kind of a life for over forty years.

In the final chapter of his book Walden, Henry David Thoreau writes: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."

"If anyone desires to come after Me," said Jesus, "let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.... For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" (Matt. 16:24, 26, nkjv)

In light of that sobering question, what decision will you make? Will you conform to the crowd or carry the cross?