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Jeremiah – The Man and his Call
The book of Jeremiah is one of the big books in the Bible. Counting the words written in the Hebrew original, Jeremiah turns out to have more words in it than any other book of the Bible. It is an important book which is cited more than 40 times in the NT.
Much of the book is made up of the messages that God gave to Jeremiah and were we to read the entire book we would become very used to expressions such as "the word of the LORD" and "thus says the LORD". If we paid careful attention we would notice that the LORD spoke to Jeremiah both with messages that he was to pass on to others and with messages that were directly addressed to Jeremiah himself.
There are plenty of verses in the book that you should be familiar with – here are just a few of them:
Jer.8:11 "They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace."
Jer.19:9 "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?"
Jer.29:11 "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope."
Jer.31:31 ""Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah,"
Along with these very important messages of divine revelation there is also a large amount of biographical material that tells us a great deal about Jeremiah, the man to whom these "words of the LORD" so often came.
Over the course of the next few Sundays I hope, with God’s help, that we will be able to dip into this biographical matter to see what we can learn from this godly man.
This evening we will content ourselves with something of an overview and then in the weeks to come we will be able to fill in some more of the details.
The Times of Jeremiah and the Nature of his Ministry
When Jeremiah began to minister the prevailing circumstances superficially offered cause for optimism:
King Josiah had already launched his reforms that sought to recall the nation to a more spiritually faithful way of living
Assyria in the north was in decline leaving the two rival powers of Babylon and Egypt opposing each other. With no one power to dominate the region Judah enjoyed a certain liberty to determine its own affairs.
It was into this context that the LORD called upon the young Jeremiah to minister. Jeremiah’s ministry would turn out to be a long one. He would serve as a prophet for over 40 years. The Bible does not record his death but leaves him in Egypt where he had been taken against his will still faithfully proclaiming the word of the LORD. Just how many years he carried on doing that, we really have no idea.
But if Jeremiah had expected to exercise a successful ministry he would be in for a rude shock. His ministry would not be marked by success but by apparent failure – over and over again as he did not succeed in convincing his own people to change their ways. Jeremiah was destined for a lonely life of service. For most of his life he was the only prophet in the land who was faithful to the LORD. And such faithfulness came with a cost.
The condition of the nation was very poor with all the major classes who might be expected to lead the people of God in the right direction failing dismally. He boldly spoke out against them with the LORD’s assessment but he was received with open hostility:
Jer.2:8 "The priests did not say, ‘Where is the LORD?’ Those who handle the law did not know me; the shepherds transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal and went after things that do not profit."
Although of priestly stock Jeremiah was rejected by the men of his own home town. Perhaps they objected to one of their own, a priest, functioning as a prophet – but they didn’t want to listen to what he had to say. In fact when Jeremiah proclaimed the "word of the LORD" no-
Jeremiah didn’t only address the priests and the false prophets but he also spoke to kings some of whom openly dismissed and despised him while others regular sought him out for his advice only never ever to follow his counsel.
Jeremiah lived in a day when the true word of the LORD was unwelcome and so Jeremiah was called upon to plough a lonely furrow. He did so with courage, persistence and bravery in the face of ceaseless hostility and didn’t give up for over 40 years!
The message which he had to preach came from the LORD but the message was always out of step with what the people wanted to hear. When he preached about the wrath of God, warning of impending judgement, the people didn’t want to listen. Then later in changed circumstances when that judgment had fallen and God wished then to encourage his people with messages of hope and restoration the people still refused to listen to the prophet.
How did Jeremiah keep going in such circumstances?
Well, simply Jeremiah preached that word he had received. When he was told to put the message in a letter he did that. When he was told to write a book a book was what was written. Then with his scribal companion Baruch he dictated a scroll containing many of his earlier messages. And here at last it seemed as though he might be making some progress because as his words were read they made a real impact upon the readers. This had to be passed to the King they said! But what did the king do? He had it read then after a few pages had been read he cut them up with a penknife and burnt them in a brazier and so it went on until there was nothing left.
How frustrating it must have been to exercise such a ministry!
And then he had all sorts, from kings to commoners, seeking his advice before they turned on him and refused to listen when he gave it. And he kept it up – year after year when no-
Now some people are difficult and awkward by character and thrive in the face of hostile adversity but that was not Jeremiah. He found his calling a hard one, one which cost him dearly. His faithfulness to his calling would lead him to him being treated as an outsider, a renegade, he would have few friends – perhaps Baruch was the only real friend he had.
The LORD would insist upon Jeremiah leading his life in such a way that it would clearly demonstrate that he himself believed the message that he preached. Jeremiah’s life would have to be one of integrity in harmony with his message: this would not prove easy but it would certainly prove costly. For example he had to announce that in the coming problems with Babylon women and children would suffer and die due to famine, diseases and the sword – therefore he himself was not allowed to marry and have the supporting comfort of a wife and children.
At a later stage against all economic sense he had to go through all the legal formalities of buying a piece of property to indicate that he believed the word that said that houses and land would be sold again in the land – prophecies of peace and normality when nothing looked less like that.
And as Jeremiah sought to conduct himself faithfully preaching not his own ideas but the word of God that was given to him he wasn’t met with indifference. Indifference would have been bad enough but Jeremiah was met by ridicule, false accusation, humiliation, and repeated imprisonment.
Life was tough for this man of God who was so far from being a tough "macho" man that he is known as "the weeping prophet" as he longed for his people to listen to what the LORD said to them through him.
Yes, life was tough for this man of God but life had its compensations. If there were so few to whom he might turn for help and comfort he found the LORD to be his refuge!
A very significant part of the Book of Jeremiah describes the intimate and close relationship that Jeremiah enjoyed with the LORD. We will find him turning audaciously to the Lord in prayer with his complaints and with his questionings – and, as I mentioned earlier, we will find plenty of examples of the LORD giving a word specifically for Jeremiah.
Jeremiah is Called to Service
Well hopefully that rapid overview will whet our appetites to learn more, in the weeks to come, about this man and how the LORD dealt with him.
Before we end this evening we’re going to take a look at his call to ministry.
When we compare the way different ones entered the LORD’s service the details are not identical:
Isaiah, for example, had been stunned by a vision of the LORD’s glory and had responded to the question:
"Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" Is.6:8
Isaiah was a volunteer, a ready servant.
The same cannot be said of Moses. Like Isaiah years later Moses too had an extraordinary experience as God met him at the burning bush but Moses he simply didn’t want to go to answer the call and pleaded:
"Oh, my Lord, please send someone else." Ex.4:13
Jeremiah’s own experience was different again – no vision precedes his call though he will have his share of visions subsequently – for Jeremiah the call comes simply through the word of the LORD:
There is no mistake, Jeremiah, I have chosen you – it’s not that you are the best of a bad lot, the best available to me. No, before you were even born I was at work making you the person I wanted you to be so I might send you.
They were words designed to encourage and reassure and doubtless would help Jeremiah at times when later in life as he would back to them and find encouragement. But they didn’t have that effect straightaway! Jeremiah wasn’t keen on the idea of being a prophet – definitely more in Moses mould rather than Isaiah’s – Jeremiah was no eager volunteer and was ready with his excuses:
Jer.1:6 ""Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth."
How many of us have responded to the LORD with excuses of our own when he provides with some occasion or other of serving him?
Excuses can sound so rational and so logical when we present them but we should stop and realise that the LORD knows all about us, all about of weaknesses and shortcomings and is more than able to give us what we need to serve him!
Jeremiah’s excuses meet with an outright rebuttal and then shown to be irrelevant in the face of glorious promises:
Jer.1:7 "But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the LORD."
And in Jeremiah’s ministry this is just what happened though it didn’t mean that Jeremiah’s life would be trouble free.
The words were followed by actions as the LORD touched Jeremiah’s mouth symbolizing the giving of the necessary ability to proclaim God’s word. Interestingly Jeremiah’s future ministry is described with four negative words of deconstruction and just two of positive rebuilding illustrating the type of ministry he would have to carry out.
As Jeremiah’s ministry was to be the passing on of God’s word it was important that Jeremiah be properly equipped to do so. He would responsible for a long ministry and would need to understand the many messages that he would be called upon to proclaim. So right here at the outset he is given a couple of visions that serve at one and the same time to test and demonstrate to Jeremiah himself that he had a clear spiritual perception and understanding of God’s truth.
Jeremiah "sees" two different visions and sees them correctly:
An almond tree
A boiling pot or cauldron
After the first the LORD tells Jeremiah that he has seen well. We might struggle to understand the significance of this but the word translated almond is very closely related in the original to the verb to watch which forms part of the LORD’s answer and explanation. In short the LORD is telling Jeremiah that his spiritual vision and understanding is good – he gets what God wants to say.
The second refers to the mighty power of Babylon up in the north which throughout Jeremiah’s life provides a serious and growing threat to Judah. Before Jeremiah is forced to go to Egypt the nation of Judah will have been defeated by Babylon and the Babylonian exile will have begun.
This second vision prepares Jeremiah for the ministry that lies ahead of him: he will have to pronounce the judgments of the LORD. His will be no easy task:
There would come times in Jeremiah’s life when he would struggle to understand why the LORD had called him and he will actually accuse the LORD of tricking him into ministry:
Jer.20:7 "O LORD, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me."
We must be careful not to be overly critical of a great and godly man – but even Jeremiah was not perfect – that honour belongs to just one man, our Lord Jesus Christ. Had Jeremiah remembered what he had been told at the outset of his ministry as the LORD called him he would realise that he had not been promised an easy ministry nor a successful one but he had been promised the LORD’s presence something which he did know in great measure.
May we come to know the LORD more and more as we continue to respond to his call upon our lives and as we serve the Saviour who promised he would never leave us nor forsake us.