Superscription and Call
As we should expect, the book commences with a first-person narrative account of how Jeremiah received his call and commissioning from God (vv. 4-10). This is preceded by a more general prefatory heading in third-person form explaining who Jeremiah was, when his call to prophesy came to him, and for how long it continued (vv. 1-3). This type of superscription compares closely with those in other prophetic collections (cf. Isa. 1:1; Ezek. 1:1-3; Hosea 1:1; Amos 1:1; and Micah 1:1). It is clear the editors of the prophetic literature recognized the importance of knowing the particular historical setting to which the prophecies that follow belong. This introduction to Jeremiah also provides a kind of total picture of the prophet’s preaching. It conveys the idea that the work of a prophet, once set down in writing, offered a kind of divine overview upon the events to which the prophecies contained in the book were originally related. In this way the superscription implies that the word of prophecy may provide an interpretation of an entire age. As the sequence of prophecies unfolds, it becomes much clearer that this age had been one of momentous significance for the nation of Israel.
The superscription also clarifies that the audience to whom the prophecies were addressed was the nation of Judah as a whole and not just the smaller groups who had heard Jeremiah preach on specific occasions. In a deeply felt sense, it is evident that the intended readers of the Book of Jeremiah weresurvivors of this nation of Judah. They in turn were merely a part of what was once the larger nation of Israel. A desire to publicize these prophecies for those who would have had no opportunity to hear them was a fundamental reason for writing them down. More significantly, however, those for whom this book of prophecies was intended were those who found themselves, as a result of what had taken place in the life of the nation, victims and survivors of events to which the prophet’s words had been addressed. Their personal histories and misfortunes, recalled and illuminated by the prophecies of Jeremiah, provide the spiritual background of the book. The superscription makes unmistakably clear that these events have happened and cannot now be reversed. All that may be hoped for is that the men and women for whom this remarkable compilation of prophetic words and sayings was put together might gain some understanding of why they were suffering as they undoubtedly were. Prophecy is the divine word of hope and explanation, which is the antidote to human despair.
Nor is there any room for doubt or uncertainty concerning the horrifying catastrophe through which these people had passed. It left them bewildered, shocked, and deeply disillusioned with their world. (See Introduction: The Chronology of Jeremiah’s Activity.) A cynical response to the events of Judah’s downfall might have concluded that such gods as there were were cruel and despotic, paying no heed to human misery and grief. Another perspective would have been to think of one God alone as the ruler of the universe, but as a being so remote and detached from human affairs as to play no effective part in them. It would then have been appropriate to lay all the blame for what had taken place upon the politicians and false prophets who had encouraged Judah to embark upon such disastrous policies. Prophecy shared neither of these views, at least in the authentic form of prophecy which had been communicated through Jeremiah. Here was a man who had held himself aloof from the headstrong currents of popular opinion, often isolated and alone, as the speaker and interpreter of God. Setting down in writing what this prophet had said and experienced, based on records which he himself and his disciple Baruch had left, has provided for us a message of faith. This faith was big enough and bold enough to embrace the whole tragic sense of human history and to see that God had been fully involved in it. Such a prophetic faith recognized the reality of human freedom, the stark and inevitable consequences that pertain to humanchoices, and the fact that men and women may, in spite of every God-given warning, choose what is evil and spurn what is good. They will then have to bear the consequence of their own decisions, experiencing all its pain and suffering.
Such faith is also a conviction that God is more than the fair and just arbiter of human deserts. His love for his creatures remains real, patient, and searching. Such love ultimately spells hope and the possibility of a new beginning. The surest sign that such love and hope do belong to the reality of God is to be found in the way in which God had, through the prophet Jeremiah, consistently and repeatedly warned and admonished the people of Judah of the dangers facing them. Faithfulness did not begin when human resources were at an end but had been demonstrated time and again through a long succession of prophetic warnings and admonitions. Jeremiah was then to be seen as the vindicator of the truth about God. His prophecies were to be read as a meaningful interpretation of the events which had brought tragedy and disaster upon Judah.
The period of Jeremiah’s early activity as a spokesman for God (627-626 b.c..) was one in which a very strong national revival was taking place in Judah. This national revival, with a great deal of heady optimism, was a result of the ending of the century-long control of Assyria. This had drained the nation of its economic wealth, compromised its political rulers, and prejudiced its religious heritage. By way of reaction it had also reawakened a sense of the oneness of Israel and Judah as the Chosen People of Yahweh their God. It had also led a significant section of the nation to reaffirm with greater intensity than ever their determination to be loyal to Yahweh as God. Jeremiah must have embarked upon his prophetic activity with divided feelings about the changes he saw taking place in the life of his nation. On the one hand he can only have welcomed the spirit and aims of those who had encouraged and revitalized Judah’s religious life. Over against this, we can discern throughout his early prophecies a deep suspicion that hope and optimism were easily slipping into complacency and an almost irrational belief that God could be relied upon to guard and protect Judah no matter how the people conducted their affairs. It was this complacent optimism which proved to be Judah’s downfall; but before the full extent of this was felt, Jeremiah had to spend forty years as an isolated and derided prophet warning against its folly.
The account of Jeremiah’s call (1:4-10) must, in company with other such prophetic call-narratives, have been composed at some interval after the event. The most likely suggestion is that it was itself composed to provide an introduction to a written collection of his prophecies. In this case almost two decades would have passed since he had first experienced this sense of a divine commissioning. The interval of time, however, makes little difference as to how it is to be understood. It reveals a sense of divine authority, compulsion, and empowering which had remained with Jeremiah throughout his prophetic ministry and upon which he must certainly have reflected many times as the years had passed.
Most strikingly, the book goes on to show how this sense of divine call and empowering had been tested, almost to the breaking point at a number of crisis-points in his work. The prophet could never have known at the time when he had first responded to God’s call what it would truly mean. Nor could he have known how heavy and almost unbearable would be the strains it would put upon him. It was long after the first bold words of prophetic utterance from his lips had been given that he discovered how hard the task was to be that he had undertaken and how hopelessly weak and inadequate were his own human resources to cope with its demands.
The sense of call, with all that this meant by way of reliance upon God and the stripping away of all other social and personal supports, was something that was taking shape over a long and difficult period of time. It had begun for Jeremiah at a specific moment in his personal life and had continued. The experience of inner self-discovery had not ceased since that first day. The sense of call belonged too to his private inner world as a part of his personal understanding of God. Yet it had to be a public and openly declared part of his self-understanding, since it alone could explain his declarations and his perceived authority to declare them. No one could confirm or deny that he possessed this calling; it was between himself and God. Just as certainly however no one could prove or disprove the truth of his prophecies save the events themselves about which they testified. It was a supremely private event to Jeremiah, while at the same time public, national, and ultimately international in its significance and consequences (cf. 1:5,10).
Jeremiah’s family background from among the priests “who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin” (1:1) is of greatinterest. It is unlikely that the youthful Jeremiah would have already begun to officiate in the sanctuary at Anathoth, just a few miles north of Jerusalem. He would certainly have undergone the training and preparation for such a task. Moreover Anathoth was the shrine to which Abiathar, the priest and close associate of David, had been banished when Solomon came to the throne (I Kings 2:26-27). As worship in the temple built by Solomon greatly enriched Jerusalem, as befitted the national royal capital, Anathoth must have accordingly declined in prestige. Nor would its situation amid the territory of Benjamin have helped in any way to alleviate the tensions and grievances of Abiathar’s descendants at their deprivation from serving in the great religious center of the nation. The dynasty of Saul, although brief and unsuccessful, had been eclipsed in the struggle for Israel’s throne by the dynasty of David. Saul was of the tribe of Benjamin, whereas David had sprung from the tribe of Judah. Just how extensively such inter-tribal rivalry had played a part in the political life of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah has been variously estimated. No doubt it would be easy to exaggerate; yet there is enough evidence to suggest that a strong and vigorous tradition of religious, political, and social opposition had lived on in the towns of Benjamin which had fallen under the jurisdiction of Judah. Although Anathoth belonged to Judah, there are grounds for thinking that many of its loyalties and traditions of religious allegiance were those of the northern tribes associated with the names of Ephraim and Israel.
This tradition of rivalry and bitterness would have been familiar to Jeremiah from his earliest days: the strong atmosphere of faith and loyalty which could not regard the political decisions nor the impressive ceremonies of Jerusalem as the unquestioned expressions of a divinely given right and privilege. Jeremiah would have been accustomed to look beneath the surface of the contemporary religious and political scene. He would have tested its validity and its veracity against the insights and principles of the older traditions of the nation’s beginnings in the days of Moses and the Exodus.
Jeremiah’s readiness to criticize and oppose the politics of the royal house of David and the claims and pretensions of the Jerusalem temple would lead him to positions of an extreme and radical nature. He could never have discerned this at the moment of his call. Yet he was convinced that from the momentof his being conceived he was divinely destined to be a prophet to Israel and the nations:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (1:5).
With such words from God to him, Jeremiah sensed that he could not be and never could have been other than a prophet to declare God’s word to his entire nation. At the same time he was to be a messenger to those other nations who also found themselves caught up in the web of events which had their origin in the impress of Babylonian imperialism upon the coastlands of the eastern Mediterranean. In a practical and relevant fashion Jeremiah’s birth among the priests of Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin was to prove to be a significant aspect of this divine fore-ordaining to such a task.
The dialogue that embodied for Jeremiah his sense of a divine call and commissioning follows a relatively well-established pattern. Jeremiah protested to God his unreadiness and unfitness for such a high responsibility. As a youth still in his teen-age years, how could he command the respect and elicit the response of kings and counselors? Yet he ultimately and unflinchingly fulfilled these tasks through his sense that God had not only commanded him to prophesy but had empowered him to do so. Had not the prophets who had gone before Jeremiah experienced the same divine empowering? Had the same experience not been true even before them in the charismatic leadership shown by the tribal judges in the days before the monarchy? Strikingly the sense of an inner exchange of words between himself and God took on a reality so sure and certain for Jeremiah that it could almost be seen and felt. So he describes the experience in visual and tangible terms: “Then the Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,…” (1:9).
How far this reflects a genuine vision of God’s presence and how far it expresses images and feelings hidden within his own mind has been an issue commentators have frequently discussed but it has not been resolved. In any case it is a point of psychological interest only and has no bearing on the spiritual and personal sense of a transforming gift of power from God that came to the prophet. Looking back after years of testing prophetic utterance and experienced opposition, such as Jeremiah’srecord of his call must undoubtedly reflect, this account of the experience has suppressed all the irrelevancies to concentrate upon the one utterly clear and totally relevant feature; God had given him the authority and strength to be a prophet.
In the concluding words of his commission the prophet reveals the two-sided nature of his task:
“Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.
See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to break down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant” (1:9-10).
With exceptional boldness such words regard the prophet’s pronouncements about God’s intentions as passing over inexorably into stark facts and realities. Words of judgment become messengers of doom and destruction which bring to ruin nations and kingdoms, like battering-rams smashing down a city’s wall of defense. Words of hope and assurance, conversely, become messengers of renewal and rebirth, like seeds planted in the soil to await the life-giving spring rains.
Two visions providing vivid summary insights into the character of his prophetic preaching during his early years follow the account of Jeremiah’s call. The first is of the shoot of an almond tree, springing up and waiting to blossom forth as the first harbinger of spring. The second is of a cooking-pot, with the flames that burn under it to heat its contents fanned by a wind from the north. Just when these particular visions occurred for Jeremiah, whether as the immediate sequel to his experience of call or at some interval of time afterwards, is not made clear. Most probably Jeremiah’s editors have placed them here, out of a feeling of their general appropriateness and probably also out of a feeling that truths seen in vision convey a note of special realism and authority. At any rate these two visions express truths about the divine intentions towards Israel which remained valid and secure for almost twenty years of the prophet’s ministry. Not until the fateful year of 605 b.c.., when Nebuchadnezzar came to power, did their full meaning become clear. At that time Egypt suffered defeat, leaving Judah at the mercy of Babylon and giving a new urgency to warnings regarding the renewal of a threat to Judah from Mesopotamia.
One feature is striking in respect to both visions, the almond-twig (1:11-12) and the cooking-pot (1:13-15). Theyrelate to objects the prophet had seen. These provided him with a theme through a verbal or mental image conveyed by the object. We should probably draw the conclusion that Jeremiah actually saw these objects. As a result of the mental associations brought on by this experience, he interpreted their meaning in relation to God and his people. The almond twig was the harbinger of spring, but this was not the warmly reassuring sense of hope that such a sight conveyed. Rather the name of the almond tree (Heb. shaqed) suggested that God was watching (Heb. shoqed) over his word (of threat and warning) to fulfill it. The people’s natural eagerness for the beginning of spring failed to reveal to them, as it did to Jeremiah, the note of danger and of imminent threat. God was watching over his word; he would not be indifferent to whether men and women listened to him, as would those who regarded every spring as the “play-time” of the year.
The second vision, the cooking-pot facing away from the north, has occasioned some difficulties for commentators in that the text does not make clear how the pot is placed in relation to the north. Its message, however, is made completely explicit through the interpretation that Jeremiah has placed upon what he has seen (1:14-15).
The implications of the prophetic message are clear, but one feature of it has occasioned a good deal of discussion and requires separate attention. Jerusalem, and the kingdom of Judah as a whole, was to be subjected to military attack and the city would be placed under siege. The precise outcome of this siege is not elaborated upon, but there are powerful hints that it would result in defeat and physical ruination for the city. This is suggested by the accusation that the people of Judah have forsaken God, so these impending events will serve as punishment. The picture of the kings of each of the kingdoms of the north sitting upon a throne outside a city under siege appears rather forced, yet we know from Assyrian portrayals of siege-warfare that this is precisely how an attacking commander would establish himself to handle the situation, especially in determining the fate of the inhabitants after a city’s surrender. Why, however, does Jeremiah declare that this foe will come “from the north”? One view that was once widely popularized must now be dismissed altogether: that the prophet had in mind at this time an invasion, otherwise unrecorded in the Old Testament books, of marauding bands of Asiatic tribesmen (theScythians). Yet no really firm evidence exists to substantiate that Judah was threatened by bands of Scythians at this time.
A more plausible explanation combining a knowledge of Judah’s earlier history with some elements of a more mythological nature has been proposed. During the century and a half in which Judah and Israel had been subjected to the imperial control of Assyria, the most humiliating defeats and the most serious threats had consistently come from the north-easterly routes linking Judah with Syria and Mesopotamia. Furthermore in the old Canaanite mythology the north as the location of the dwelling-place of the God Baal could have acquired a certain sinister and threatening connotation. Possibly, therefore, in affirming that Jerusalem and Judah were threatened “out of the north,” Jeremiah was basing his portrayal on a combination of previous historical experience and certain overtones of a religious and mythological nature.
There is, however, a far more straightforward and convincing explanation for Jeremiah’s insistence upon turning the attention of his people to the dangers that threatened them from the north. He was challenging the excessive enthusiasm with which his compatriots were celebrating the waning of Assyrian influence in Judah’s affairs. Many believed that this was the last time they would see Mesopotamian military might parading across their land and pillaging its towns and cities. Jeremiah was warning against such premature and ill-judged complacency. Furthermore, from the perspective of the editors of the book, and by implication in the minds and understanding of its intended readers, the question of the identity of the “foe” was never in doubt; it was Babylon, as events had incontrovertibly made plain! Just how early Jeremiah himself had narrowed down the identity of the enemy to Babylon is less clear; probably not until after Nebuchadnezzar had risen to the throne and siezed control over Judah from the Egyptians in the year 605/604 b.c.. This would not rule out but rather would confirm the view that the enemy Jeremiah had at first described vaguely as coming “from the north” should subsequently have become more narrowly identified as Babylon, or more explicitly, the neo-Babylonian empire that gained the upper hand in Mesopotamia after the collapse of Assyria.
Therefore there is no difficulty in recognizing that Jeremiah’s deeply religious and fervently spiritual prophetic thinking and language was through and through imbued with apolitical relevance. Politics and religion were not two separate spheres in Judah. We can readily see that Josiah’s achievements, during whose reign Jeremiah began to preach, had had equally strong political and religious aims.
The narrative concerning Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet and the account of the two visions which summarize the character and content of his early prophesying conclude with a personal injunction from God to the prophet himself (1:17-19). This clearly is not intended as simply sound advice and an assurance to Jeremiah concerning the expected nature of his career but was also a considered preface to the book. Jeremiah, beleaguered and threatened by his own people, was to stand like a city surrounded by its attackers. Against him would be ranged virtually the entire leadership of his nation: “the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land” (v. 18). They would fight against Jeremiah when they discovered that his words sounded a strident note of opposition to their own positions and policies. It would be Jeremiah’s words that would prevail, however, not theirs! When ruin and disaster struck, as the book’s readers knew only too well was to be the story that would unfold, it would be Jeremiah’s words that could bring light and understanding. When events revealed the foolishness of the plausible, yet complacent, attitudes displayed by the nation’s leaders—kings, princes, priests, and even prophets—then Jeremiah’s words alone would retain their credibility as God’s revealed truth to the nation. The tragedy would be in discovering how few had listened to such a prophet, how grievous and painful the sufferings he had had to bear for no other reason than that he had possessed the courage to tell the truth as God had revealed it to him!