It is a hardy adventurer who decides to brave the book of Jeremiah. By word count the longest book in the Bible, its 52 chapters weave a tangled tale of sin, judgement, lamentation and woe. And yet, hidden within all this tumultuous emotion, and shining through it, is the man himself—Jeremiah the prophet, a man who by words and life foreshadowed the Christ to come with unique poignancy.
I write what follows in the spirit of a tour guide, one who has travelled these paths and wishes to travel them again, in company, and point out some features of interest along the way. You may find more Bible (the translations are my own) and less comment than you are used to in an article like this, but if you feel you know the prophet a little better at the end, it will have been worth it.
Our tour will take us swiftly over the first half of the book, with just one real stop along the way, in chapters 14-15. And as we go we will be listening out for Jeremiah’s preaching of judgement. What message did he preach? What sort of audience did he preach to? What sort of person was he as a preacher? We will notice these things because they are important for anyone who has come to know the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and wishes to share it with others.
We need to hear what Jeremiah has to tell us because a gospel emptied of the wrath of God is a gospel emptied of truth and power. To see that, one only has to see the moral corruption and decline of churches that deny the reality of judgement. At the same time, God does not judge as humans do, and a large part of the power and glory of the gospel is found in the unique qualities of divine wrath.
We first encounter the prophet as God speaks to him using language of ‘shaping’ that reminds us of the creation of Adam in Genesis 2:
Before I shaped you in the belly I knew you,
before you emerged from the womb I had sanctified you:
a prophet to the nations I have appointed you. (Jer 1:5)
These verses establish Jeremiah as someone who in his being is a creature of the word of God. In addressing Jeremiah, the word of the Lord defines him—it constitutes him as a person, making him a fit vessel for God’s words:
Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth. The LORD said to me,
“I have just put my words in your mouth.
See, I have appointed you this day
over nations and over kingdoms,
to tear up and to tear down,
to demolish and to abolish,
to grow and to sow.” (1:9-10)
In Genesis 1, God creates the universe by the power of his word; here, it is not the words that God speaks but God’s words that Jeremiah speaks which have this same creative and ‘uncreative’ power.
God fills Jeremiah with his words and sends him out like a time-bomb among the people of Judah. God’s message opens with words full of the pain of an abandoned husband:
“I remember you,
your youthful faithfulness,
your bridal love;
the way you followed in my steps in the wilderness,
in an unsown land.
Sacred was Israel to the LORD, the firstfruits of his harvest.
All who ate it brought guilt on themselves;
disaster overtook them.
What did your ancestors find in me—
Injustice?—who, being so far from me,
went and followed in the steps
of nothingness, and so become nothing? (2:2-3,5)
I thought you would call me ‘My father’,
and not turn away from my steps.
But—as a wife turns in betrayal from her beloved—
so have you betrayed me, house of Israel.” (3:19b-20)
In Jeremiah 4, the first gospel word is spoken—the same word with which Jesus began his ministry: a call to repentance.
“If you, Israel, would return, says the LORD,
then to me you must return.
If you remove your abominations* from my sight
and stake your life on the living LORD
(truly, justly, righteously),
then nations will bless themselves by him
and in him glory.” (4:1-2)
[*abominations = idols]
The Lord longs to pour out his affection on this rogue nation—to lavish gifts upon her—but after repeated appeals fall on deaf ears his tone changes to one of resolute anger:
“Circumcise yourselves to the LORD;
remove the foreskins of your hearts,
people of Judah and residents of Jerusalem,
lest my wrath flare forth like fire
and burn unquenchable
in the face of the evil of your deeds.” (4:4)
And from this point on, the voice of God changes from that of an anguished husband to that of an impersonal, implacable foe:
“Make it known to the nations,
communicate to Jerusalem:
Besiegers are come from a far country,
roaring up to Judah’s towns.
Like crop watchers they cluster round her,
for she has rebelled against me,
says the LORD.
Your lifestyle and behaviour
have brought this upon you.
This is your disaster—how bitter!
How it has pierced you to the heart!” (4:16-18)
We need to be clear that this is not the sadistic violence of a tyrant; God never stops being the husband whose love for his bride cannot be quenched. This can be hard for us to fathom, because our sinful hearts don’t have room for strong anger, strong love and perfect goodness all in the one place. But to help us get it, God allows the voice of Jeremiah to find its way into the discourse, so that in his reaction we are reminded of God’s anguished love.
My stomach, my stomach! I’m writhing!
My constricted heart!
Such a noise my heart is making.
I cannot keep silent
since I heard the blast of trumpets –
my soul!—the battle shout. (4:19)
This is Jeremiah’s pain we are hearing, but not his alone, because in these words we hear God speaking too. How? Because what God has done to Jeremiah in making him a prophet means that Jeremiah now feels God’s feelings.
We will return to Jeremiah the preacher in a moment, but first we need to think about his audience. They were Judeans who lived and died over 2,500 years ago. But in everything that matters, they were no different from the modern secular audience God has given us to share Christ with today.
“For dense are my people;
they do not know me.
Foolish children are they,
they’re devoid of sense.
Wise are they at doing evil,
but at doing good they’re clueless.” (4:22)
It is a tragic fact that rejecting God and his word is not a neutral act. It desensitizes people to God’s voice (5:30-31). Whether it’s the new atheism, the new sexuality, or the old greed and materialism, these things just feel right to our society, even as the gospel feels wrong. As a result, both Jeremiah’s listeners and ours are bemused to hear that God is going to judge them. They simply cannot understand what they’ve done wrong.
When you announce all these words to this people, they will say to you: “For what reason has the Lord spoken all this great disaster against us? What is our iniquity? What is our sin that we have committed against the LORD our God?” (16:10)
When things get to this point, there is not really anything you can do. As Jesus said to Nicodemus: “And this is the judgement: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” (John 3:19-20). We need to feel the weight of this if we are to grasp the magnitude of God’s grace. There is a real sense in which the people to whom we preach are beyond forgiveness (Jer 5:1). Imagine what it must have been like to be Jeremiah, filled with words from God and compelled to speak them to an audience like that.
“To whom shall I speak,
shall I warn, so that they hear?
They have uncircumcised ears!
they are unable to pay attention.
The word of the LORD is now a reproach to them
they take no delight in it.
But the wrath of the LORD fills me
and I weary of containing it.” (6:10-11a)
The further into the book we get, the more of Jeremiah’s own voice we start to hear. Chapter 14 is a classic example, and it has something very special to show us about the connection between the preacher’s message and his life.
The chapter starts with Jeremiah calling judgement down on the people in the form of a drought. Yet Jeremiah himself is one of the people, and he is going to feel the sting of God’s wrath every bit as much as his fellow countrymen. So it is not surprising that straight after he has announced judgement he prays for mercy for himself and his people.
“Though our iniquities incriminate us,
LORD, act! For the sake of your name.
Ah, too often have we re-offended;
it’s you we’ve sinned against.
Hope of Israel!
Its Saviour in times of distress!
Why be like a stranger in the land,
or a wayfarer stopping for the night?
Why be like someone caught off guard,
like a warrior powerless to save?
You are among us, LORD,
and we are called by your name.
Don’t abandon us!” (14:7-9)
But the Lord’s response in the next verse only confirms that the people are beyond forgiveness:
This is what the LORD says concerning this people:
“They dearly love to wander;
their feet they don’t restrain.
So the LORD does not accept them.
Now he will remember their iniquity
and punish their sins.”
Then the Lord said to me,
“Do not pray for the welfare of this people.” (14:10-11)
We are starting to see in the person of Jeremiah a sort of ‘double nature’ emerging. Ever since he ate God’s words at his commissioning he has been the embodied voice of God, supernaturally filled with God’s anguish and wrath. But now we see that Jeremiah also feels the sting of God’s judgement by virtue of being an Israelite himself. Ironically, he is the only Israelite who recognizes that the pain he is going through is God’s judgement at all! This is not an easy place to be, caught between the people’s suffering and God’s anger, and in verse 17 we see the tension rising within the preacher:
“Speak this word to them:
‘Let my eyes overflow with tears
night and day without ceasing;
for a great blow has shattered
my virgin daughter, my people,
a horrific, critical injury.
If I go out to the field,
look—those slain by the sword!
If I enter the city,
look—those ill from famine!
For both prophet and priest
travel to a land they do not know.’” (14:17-18)
There’s another blurring of identities here. Whose eyes are overflowing with tears? The mention of “my virgin daughter, my people” makes them God’s eyes. But the language that follows is full of all-too-human surprise. This is yet another occasion where not only are God’s words being spoken by Jeremiah, but God’s emotions are being felt by Jeremiah. He is forbidden from presenting the people’s pain to God, but commanded to present God’s pain to the people. It’s unlikely the people are going to pay any attention, given their track record—they’ll just bring down more judgement on themselves by ignoring him. But the one person who will by no means remain unaffected is Jeremiah himself. Here he is, filled with supernatural anguish because the punishment he has announced will be carried out against Judah—a people that includes Jeremiah himself. The Christ-like shape of Jeremiah’s ministry is inescapable.
By the end of chapter 15, Jeremiah’s transformation into a Christ figure is complete, as we hear him pouring out his heart to God.
You know, LORD!
Remember me and watch over me;
take vengeance for me on my persecutors.
Do not, out of slowness to anger, take me away;
know that I bear on your account reproach.
Your words were found, and I ate them.
Your words became my joy
and my heart’s jubilation,
for I am called by your name,
LORD God of Hosts.
I did not sit in the circle of revellers and make merry;
because of your hand, alone I sat,
for with indignation you had filled me.
Why has my pain become unending,
my wound incurable,
refusing to be healed?
You are to me like a mirage,
an untrustworthy spring. (15:15-18)
There are three remarkable phrases in this confession (in italics)—remarkable because we have heard them before, but not from Jeremiah. It was the people, back in 14:9, who said “we are called by your name”; it was the people, in 14:17-19, who were shattered by a wound and said, “there is no healing for us”; and it was the people, throughout chapter 14, to whom God was a spring that failed. Here Jeremiah has become the representative Israelite who suffers in his body the judgement God has announced for the nation. In a mounting series of ironies, Jeremiah suffers this judgement at the hands of the very Israelites he represents, and precisely because he dwells among them as one filled with the word of the Lord. The word of the Lord was repugnant to his listeners, but Jeremiah was “called by your name”—a way of saying he was like God’s bride, his true Israel, delighted by God’s nearness.
It’s no wonder Jeremiah felt such a sense of betrayal. He was the only one who did not deserve to be judged, yet he alone was tormented by the knowledge of God’s displeasure.
I want to pause the tour at this point and reflect on the picture Jeremiah presented to his audience of the wrath of God. It was not only Jeremiah’s words, but his whole life that proclaimed the word of God. When he spoke, it was the words of God the audience heard. And in what he did, whether it was a public symbolic action (e.g. 13:1-11) or a personal cry of despair, he made the word of God visible in his own life. He did not stand up in a pulpit and point a fiery finger at the wicked people beneath him. The judgement he preached, he suffered; often, it was by suffering it that he preached it.
Does this make Jeremiah a model for us? Well no, and yes.
Before he is a model for us, Jeremiah is a model of the Christ. And as a foreshadowing of Jesus, Jeremiah shows us just how hard it is to stand between and represent both a holy God and a sinful humanity. Jesus’ suffering in his final week was the last, most trying stage of a long, hard, road that began with a stable in Bethlehem, and a slaughter of children (31:15). Jeremiah shows us that not a moment of Jesus’ life was untroubled. And yet this inner conflict in the person of the Christ is there by God’s design, because what it reveals is nothing less than God’s own pain at the judgement he must inflict.
What about us? God has not filled us with words that we have no choice but to speak, as he did Jeremiah, but he doesn’t have to: the love of Christ compels us! And while Jeremiah was used uniquely in God’s plan of salvation, he was just a man, and there is nothing unique about the way he embodied the word of God in his life. Every Christian should be able to say with Paul, “you became imitators of us and of the Lord”. There is nothing unique about being defined as a person by the words one speaks and the things one does. There is nothing unique about a life that demonstrates the truth of the gospel as powerfully as any words. There is nothing unique about being distressed that our fellow countrymen have placed themselves beyond forgiveness, that they are dead in their sins. On the contrary, this is precisely the sort of person we need to be if we would be preachers of Christ.
There are wonderful, joyful tracts of country in Jeremiah’s book, but our tour has not taken us there. To linger over the terrible parts is important, because to proclaim the gospel is to let loose a power that can unmake its listener in terrible judgement. When a person’s evil behaviour makes the gospel repugnant to them, a call to repent may simply drive them closer to hell. Of course the gospel contains the power to do the impossible—bring life to the dead—and this is where Jeremiah will end his story. But he never lets us forget that the world into which we bring this good news is one given over to judgement. Jeremiah preached faithfully for 40 years, and the one great act of power his call for repentance unleashed in his own lifetime was the destruction of Jerusalem and the death of the nation in exile.
We who share Christ with those around us can do little to make our words more palatable. Either the word of God will, in its own power, refresh the appetites of rebellious listeners, or nothing will. But one thing we dare not do is take up the words of God without first putting on Christ.
Interested in more on Jeremiah? Andrew’s book A Mouth Full of Fire will be published this September.