Commentary on Jer 1:1, 4-10
As we listen during these weeks to the teachings of the great prophets, we come today to one of the greatest – Jeremiah in the latter half of the 7th century BC. He was born about 650 BC of a priestly family in Anathoth, a village near Jerusalem. Today we read how in the year 628, at the age of 22, how he was called to be a prophet. His life in the service of the Lord will face many hardships.
Today we start with hearing about his call by God to be a prophet.
The first three verses of the first chapter put Jeremiah in his historical context but we only read the first verse. In the verses omitted, we are told that his call came in the 13th year of the reign of King Josiah of Judah and continued through the reign of his son, Jehoiakim and on until the downfall of Jerusalem under puppet King Zedekiah, a son of Josiah, when the people were brought off into exile to Babylon. In our readings from the books of the Kings, we have met all these people already.
The book opens by telling us that it contains the “words of Jeremiah”, that is, the whole story of his discourses and activities. (There are actually 10 people called Jeremiah in the Hebrew Testament, of whom two were actually contemporaries of our prophet.)
His father, Hilkiah (a common Biblical name, meaning ‘the Lord is my portion’) may have been related to a priestly house going back to the time of King Solomon. Like Ezekiel and Zechariah, Jeremiah himself was both a prophet and priest. We know of two other men in the Bible named Hilkiah, both of them Jeremiah’s contemporaries.
His birthplace, Anathoth, was a village not far from Jerusalem and was named after Anat(h), a Canaanite deity who was goddess of war. Its priestly connections go back to the time of Joshua, the successor of Moses, and Solomon. Abiathar the priest had been sent into exile there by Solomon. Its pagan origins would presumably have been almost forgotten by Jeremiah’s time.
Anata, a town 5 km northeast of Jerusalem, still preserves the ancient name although it is about 2 km away from the biblical site. Anathoth is described as being in the territory of Benjamin (patriarch and the youngest of Jacob’s 12 sons) and was one of four Levitical towns. (Priests came from the tribe of Levi.) After the Babylonian exile, Benjamites settled there again.
Jeremiah then tells how the word of God came to him. Yahweh says to him: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you came to birth I consecrated you.” From all eternity God knew of Jeremiah and in the very act of creating him had a call on his unconditional service. In the beginning of the letter to the Ephesians we read a similar description of our own calling: “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” (Eph 1:4). Paul, writing to the Galatians, speaks of “God who set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace…” (Gal 1:15).
When God tells Jeremiah, “I knew you”, he means more than an awareness of his identity. To “know” in the Scripture implies a close and intimate relationship which goes beyond the purely mental or intellectual, still less just recognition. In other biblical contexts, the word can also mean “choose”.
When God says to the prophet, “I consecrated you”, he means more than making Jeremiah holy but rather equipping him for the work of prophet, to be a spokesman for God with his people. Jeremiah is being called to be a prophet to the nations, but his native Judah, the kingdom of which Jerusalem was the capital, is certainly included among these.
Jeremiah responds to this call with some alarm; like Isaiah, he feels totally inadequate for the task. Moses, too, had many misgivings about being chosen to lead God’s people. “If you please, Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past, nor recently, nor now that you have spoken to your servant. But I am slow of speech and tongue” (Exod 4:10). Jeremiah also says: “I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.” And Paul, when he complains of an affliction that he feels makes him less effective as an evangeliser, is reassured that it is precisely his weaknesses which make him a fitting channel for God’s message (2 Cor 12:7-10).
Jeremiah’s objection is rejected immediately by Yahweh. He has no cause to fear. “Do not say, I am only a child.” Youth and inexperience do not disqualify when God calls. He equips and sustains those he commissions. Timothy is also encouraged when he is told: “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim 4:12).
“Have no fear” – perhaps one of the most repeated phrases in both the Old and New Testaments and often heard from the lips of Jesus. Jeremiah will be given what he needs to carry out his mission. He is simply to go to those to whom he will be sent and to say what he is told to say. He has no need to fear because God is with him to protect him.
“I am with you” – God’s promise of his continuing presence should calm the fears of the most reluctant of prophets. “To deliver you” – Yahweh does not promise that Jeremiah will not be persecuted or imprisoned (he will) but that no serious physical harm will come to him.
Then comes the act or rite of commissioning. What is described may have come to Jeremiah in a vision or the experience is simply being expressed in figurative language. The Lord touched Jeremiah’s mouth and gave him his mission. “I am putting words into your mouth.” It describes perfectly the role of the prophet – to be a spokesperson for God. As he had been promised earlier, Jeremiah will be told what he has to say. The prophet does not speak in his own name; he speaks as the messenger of God.
The prophetic mission is then described in both negative and positive terms. He is both to “tear up and knock down, to destroy and overthrow”. But he is also “to build and to plant”. The first two pairs of verbs are negative, stressing the fact that Jeremiah is to be primarily a prophet condemning what is wrong, while the last pair is positive, indicating that he is also to be a prophet of restoration – even if only secondarily. This is the traditional role of the prophet. He is called on to denounce all that is against truth, love and justice. He also exhorts people to convert, to reform and to turn their lives around.
Jeremiah is often seen as a prophet of doom (we call gloomy people “Jeremiahs”) but he also had positive messages to bring. We will see that Jeremiah’s hard-hitting words were not welcomed especially by the rich and those in power. He will be attacked and persecuted.
This too is the role of the Church within whose ranks there must always be prophets. Prophets who will not only speak to the world but to their own Church.
We might reflect on who are the prophets in our contemporary Church today? Do we have enough prophets? Does our Church encourage and see the need for the prophetic role? One fact is sure; they are not always welcomed by their fellow-Christians, not least by those in authority. There can also be false prophets and we must carefully discern which is which.
Every baptised person is, in a sense, priest, prophet and king as we share in the mission of Jesus Christ himself, who was, of course, a prophet in the sense we have been discussing. Each one of us has been called from all eternity to do what Jeremiah was asked to do: to tear up and knock down, to build and to plant.
As we sometimes say, the Church and its members have both to denounce and announce, or, in more colloquial terms, “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable”. As with Jeremiah, this will not make us very popular with certain groups but popularity has never been a requirement for salvation.