Being a spokesman for God was often painful and sometimes dangerous work. No one illustrated that better than the prophet Jeremiah, whose faithful obedience to God brought him personal suffering and heartbreak.
“This is the word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah” (Jeremiah 7:1). So states the book of the prophet Jeremiah. The man through whom God’s word came in the last days of the kingdom of Judah was one of the most remarkable of all God’s servants. Not much is known about the details of Jeremiah’s early life. But no Old Testament writer reveals more of himself, of his inner thoughts and feelings as well as his later experiences, than this small-town priest turned prophet.
When God called Jeremiah, at first he was reluctant to go, filled as he was with both a sense of personal inadequacy and the hopelessness of his task. Jeremiah lived during the final days of Jerusalem, when the brutal armies of Babylon repeatedly marched against the city. He was given the responsibility of urging the people of Judah to submit to those enemy forces, whom the Lord was using to bring judgment upon his people. Jeremiah’s message was not only that judgment was coming, but that the people should accept it and not resist. If they would be obedient to God’s word and humble themselves beneath the disciplining hand of God, they would escape complete disaster. But Jeremiah knew from the outset that he would fail. The people would not accept the Word which the Lord spoke through him. Jeremiah’s ministry would be rejected, and devastating judgment would fall. Though a devoted patriot, Jeremiah was destined to preach an unpopular message for more than forty years without success, carrying in his heart all the while the knowledge that the people and land he loved were doomed. Small wonder that Jeremiah is known as “the weeping prophet.”
“TODAY I APPOINT YOU”
Jeremiah was first called to prophesy in 626 b.c, the thirteenth year of King Josiah, during the waning years of Judean independence. He was just a young man at the time of his call, and he used his youth as a basis for objecting to the responsibility God was giving him.
A message came to me from the Lord. He said,
“Before I formed you in your mother’s body I chose you.
Before you were born I set you apart to serve me.
I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations.”
You are my Lord and King,” I said. “I don’t know how to speak. I’m only a child.”
But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I’m only a child.’ You must go to everyone I send you to. You must say everything I command you to say. Do not be afraid of the people I send you to. I am with you. I will save you,” announces the Lord.
Then the Lord reached out his hand. He touched my mouth and spoke to me. He said, “I have put my words in your mouth. Today I am appointing you to speak to nations and kingdoms. I want you to pull them up by the roots and tear them down. I want you to destroy them and crush them. But I also want you to build them up and plant them.”
Jeremiah 1:4-10, NIrV
What an overpowering assignment! Would you like to be charged by God with the responsibility of bringing a message of life or death to whole nations and kingdoms? But if you are a Christian, you have been! You and I have exactly that responsibility. This classic passage from the first chapter of Jeremiah has significance for everyone who belongs to God. These comforting and challenging words could just as truthfully be applied to any believer. God, in his eternal, unchangeable love, has known us and set us apart for himself before we were even born. He has appointed us to serve his wonderful saving purposes in the world. He calls each one of us to speak his word of reproof and salvation to nations and peoples – and to our neighbors, families and friends – wherever we may be sent. We can object to that calling as Jeremiah did. We might plead our youth and inexperience, or our age and weakness. We could point to our lack of education or training, or to some other inadequacy. We might claim that we’re too shy, or not a significant enough person. We can argue that we’ve never been any good at speaking, the way Moses did when God called him from a burning bush (Exodus 4:10). But none of our excuses prevail. None can stand against God’s command to go and speak for him. And remember, God also promises to be with us always. So how could we refuse to speak for him if that is true?
But God does even more than this. The Lord not only promises, he also equips everyone he appoints to serve him. Jeremiah told how “the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, ‘Now, I have put my words in your mouth’” (v. 9). That calls to mind the experience of another great prophet, Isaiah. Do you remember the scene Isaiah described of his great vision in the Temple (Is. 6)? Isaiah saw the Lord, high and lifted up on his throne. He heard the seraphs, the highest angels, swirling round the throne with angel wings beating and veiled faces, crying out their three-fold “Holies” to the Lord God of hosts. Isaiah was crushed by what he saw. His vision of God filled him with a sense of shame at his own uncleanness and insignificance. But God sent an angel, who picked up a burning coal from the altar, flew to him, and touched his lips with it. The Lord symbolically touches us, purifies us and enables us to perform the task he is sending us to do. That’s what he did for Isaiah. That’s what he did for Jeremiah.
CALLED TO BE PROPHETS
“O.K., that’s fine,” you say, “but they were special cases. Isaiah and Jeremiah were famous prophets. They even wrote books in the Bible. What does that have to do with me?” It has a lot to do with you! Maybe you’ve heard of the phrase, “the priesthood of all believers.” It’s one of the great truths about the church taught in the New Testament (cf. 1 Peter 2:9). What the priesthood of all believers means is that every Christian is called to be a priest. Any person who belongs to Christ is qualified and commissioned to do the work of a priest, which is to offer worship to God and to be a representative of God for other people, to come before God on their behalf and to come before them on God’s behalf.
But did you know that every Christian is also called to be a prophet? In the passage where he says that we are “a royal priesthood,” the apostle Peter goes on to explain God’s reason for that. It was so “that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light”(1 Pt. 2:10). That’s what a prophet does. A prophet is someone who speaks for God, who declares God’s great acts and proclaims his Word to the world. It’s true that certain individuals are still called to this holy office in a special sense as ordained ministers. Pastors and teachers, missionaries and evangelists are given particular gifts and responsibilities for doing the Lord’s work. But every Christian believer is also a prophet in the sense that he or she is called to speak for God and share the good news of Jesus Christ with others.
If all of us are prophets, chosen like Jeremiah before we were even born, and appointed “over nations and kingdoms” (v. 10), and anointed to confess the name of the Lord Jesus Christ in witness to those nations, then it must also follow that God will touch our mouths and put his words there. Which is exactly what Christ has promised to every one of us. When Jesus told his followers they would be thrust into many difficult situations where they would be called upon to testify for him, he also promised, “At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matt. 10:19ff.). Therefore, it follows, doesn’t it, that all our objections and excuses for not speaking are just as feeble as Jeremiah’s were? If the Lord says, “Today I appoint you,” who are we to say, “No thanks, I don’t want to talk to anyone about you”?
“ FIRE IN MY BONES”
Jeremiah’s trouble wasn’t so much that he had to be a prophet. It was the kind of prophet he had to be. It was Jeremiah’s sad duty to pronounce God’s message of final judgment upon Judah and Jerusalem because of their idolatry and sinfulness. The disastrous punishment all his predecessors had predicted, this prophet announced as having arrived. As if that wasn’t hard enough, Jeremiah was destined to have his message rejected. The inhabitants of Jerusalem had grown accustomed to divine deliverance. They expected the Lord to continue repeating miraculous victories for them over threatening foreign armies. They were convinced that the mere existence of the Temple, the enduring symbol of God’s presence, rendered Jerusalem invulnerable. Jeremiah’s job was to tell them they were wrong (cf. Jeremiah 7:8-15). That did not make him popular!
On top of the rejection and physical abuse he suffered, the prophet also carried with him the burden of the emotional anguish he himself felt at the prospect of his people’s destruction. Though he was accused of being a traitor, Jeremiah loved his city and his people deeply. The thought of their impending doom broke his heart. In a famous passage he describes his feelings:
My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick . . . For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!
(Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, nrsv)
Jeremiah calls his prophetic message “a burden”; and no wonder. It was heavy to bear. His charge from the Lord was to preach repentance to those who would not repent, and then to pronounce judgment on the city and people whose destruction would break his own heart. He came to the point where he felt he could speak no more, but then discovered he was no more able to keep silent.
Sometimes I think, “I won’t talk about him anymore.
I’ll never speak in his name again.”
But then your message burns in my heart.
It’s like a fire inside my very bones.
I’m tired of holding it in.
In fact, I can’t.
Jeremiah 20:9, NIrV
God’s word was like a fire in Jeremiah’s bones. He had to give expression to it, even through his tears. I wonder – do you think that if we felt as strongly as Jeremiah about both our message and our audience, we would experience that same kind of inward fire? If we cared more deeply about Jesus Christ, and if we cared just as deeply about the spiritual needs of lost people who do not know him, maybe we would learn to weep like Jeremiah did.
I know I want to feel more of this prophet’s fire, and I want to weep more of his tears. I have been given such a privilege: to broadcast God’s word all over the world. I sit here sometimes and try to imagine where my words will reach and who will hear them. And it’s all to communicate the good news of God’s love. But that good news is set against a background of bad news. It’s light contrasted with shadow. The bad news is sin, judgment, death; the good news is salvation from all those things through the death of Jesus Christ and our trust in him. It is a message to nations and kingdoms, to men and women. It both destroys and crushes, but it also builds up and plants. My privilege and responsibility is to declare that message as clearly and truthfully and with as much feeling as I can. I don’t feel adequate to the task, but what else can I do? Like Jeremiah, I feel compelled to speak.
But you have a responsibility too. You must hear, and respond, and believe. And then you must share the good news with others. Are you doing that?