Jeremiah Was a Prophet, Part 1

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The Old Testament prophets were a strange lot. They had to be. Life was hard enough back then, but add into the mix having to preach messages that put you on the wrong side of most people, and you’ve got men with few friends and fewer supporters. Here’s a very brief description of the last Old Testament prophet, John the Baptist:

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. (Matthew 3:4. TNIV)

But no Old Testament prophet is so misunderstood as Jeremiah. What most Christians know about Jeremiah they know from sound bites. He was “the weeping prophet.” He was “temperamental and neurotic.” But if that’s all you know about him, you’ve missed the essence of Jeremiah. He was, in fact, a prophet of hope.

He messages were hard but not unique to him. Jeremiah’s messages of warning were really restatements of what his predecessors had preached; they were messages of the sure final doom of the nation he loved so much, yet he was able to see beyond the coming judgment to a new and better day. Reading the sermons of Jeremiah, I can’t help but think of the words of Mote’s classic hymn, The Solid Rock:

When darkness hides his lovely face,
I rest on his unchanging grace,
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.

No matter how dark, depressing, and distressing his circumstances had become, Jeremiah was absolutely convinced that there was a light just ahead. His was not an empty hope, but a hope built on his faith in God and God’s promises.

People who are filled with confidence in themselves and their own abilities worship at the altar of “the god of immediate success” and tend to avoid reading Jeremiah. Their immaturity forbids them reading what a realist wrote. And yet, Jeremiah stands today as the greatest figure of his generation. He wasn’t appreciated back then, but his messages resonate with a new generation of believer, looking for the hope Jeremiah was convinced of that is so needed today.

Jeremiah the prophet began his ministry around 627 BC and continued for some 40 years until his nation dissolved around him in 586 BC. He lasted through the final five kings of Judah, and while Isaiah also preached during the reigns of a number of kings, Jeremiah was never welcomed anywhere near the royal courts as Isaiah was.

God knows whom He calls

The message the prophet was never some kind of nebulous theory, a figment of his over-active and deranged imagination, but rather the prophet’s message came out of the history of his time. Jeremiah was a real man who lived during a real time in history. The opening words of Jeremiah’s book of prophecy nail down this man’s history:

The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. The word of the Lord came to him in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah, and through the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, down to the fifth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah, when the people of Jerusalem went into exile. (Jeremiah 1:1 – 3 TNIV)

Jeremiah was born in a town about three miles northeast of Jerusalem. His father was a priest, and we may be sure Hilkiah had high hopes that his son would follow in his priestly footsteps. He didn’t. Jeremiah, whose name means “Jah is high” or “Whom Jah appoints” would, instead, become one of those weirdo prophets.

Jeremiah was a young man when he began his ministry in the 13th year of Josiah’s reign. His years of ministry occurred during a tumultuous time in history for the Jews. There were great social and political upheavals going on which Jeremiah witnessed firsthand. From Judah’s last righteous King (Josiah) to its last actual King (Zedekiah), Jeremiah lived long enough to experience a glorious revival and to witness Jerusalem’s utter destruction by Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon. This latter event came as no surprise to the citizens of Judah, as Jeremiah warned them for decades the day was coming because of their stubborn obsession with idolatry.

This prophet was a man for his times. Just a quick survey of the kings he ministered under will give you an idea of Jeremiah’s temperament. Josiah, the first king mentioned, came to power at eight years of age! At that time, Judah had fallen so far from God that there was not a single copy of the Law in the land. And yet, when he was 26 years old, Josiah began a Temple reconstruction project. The high priest at that time –  Hilkiah – found a copy of the Law hidden away in the rubble of the Temple! When the young king read it, he was overcome with fear and conviction and instituted a number of religious reforms that led Judah into an incredible spiritual revival that lasted until Josiah left the throne.

In spite of that, Josiah entered into a deal with the devil, specifically, Josiah got involved in the convoluted world of international politics and went to war against Neco, the Egyptian King. Jeremiah did his best to dissuade Josiah from this course of action, but Josiah was determined. Sadly, this godly King was killed in battle and the army of Judah trounced. Jehoahaz, Josiah’s third son, was chosen to be king. Judah quickly degenerated to a mere vassal to Egypt. Jehoahaz managed to hang on to the throne for three months before Neco had him deported to Egypt.

Another son of Josiah, Jehoiakim, was chosen to replace Jehoahaz. Jehoiakim was one evil king. He was greedy, dishonest, and treated his people mercilessly. During his reign, Babylon defeated Egypt in battle, and they soon took notice of Judah. It was during Jehoiakim’s reign that Nebuchadnezzar first invaded Judah. It was then that Daniel and the best and brightest of Hebrew children were taken captive back to Babylon. King Jehoiakim tried to have Jeremiah killed but was unsuccessful. He sat on the throne for eleven years, and was eventually taken by Nebuchadnezzar captive during a failed revolt against Babylon.

Jehoiakim’s son, Jehoiachin, succeeded his father. After only three months the mighty Babylonian army came and carried him off to Babylon. It was during this invasion that Ezekiel, another prophet, was taken captive as well. Ezekiel lived in exile for some 40 years. He never saw Judah again, dying in exile.

Zedekiah was Judah’s final king. He ruled for eleven years, but by then Judah was literally falling apart. Jeremiah had given Zedekiah some sound advice, which the king disregarded. Instead of living in peace with his Babylonian overlords, Zedekiah joined in a doomed rebellion against them. Nebuchadnezzar, by this time, had no more patience with the Hebrews and in a final siege against Jerusalem which last two years, he breached the walls and entered the city only to find its citizens starving and dying. With no more resistance, the forces of Babylon destroyed the Temple and much of the city. Jerusalem was left almost empty and decimated.

This was what the world was like when Jeremiah was ministering. Martin Luther observed:

Next to faith this is the highest art – to be content with the calling in which God has placed you.

Jeremiah was called to preach at a horrible time in history. But he kept on, never stopping, and fulfilled God’s calling.

The word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. “. (Jeremiah 1:4, 5 TNIV)

Jeremiah was probably in his late teens or very early 20’s when the Lord spoke these words to him. Verse 5 is really a phenomenal verse for a couple of reasons. First, it says God actually knows us. Jeremiah isn’t unique, God knows all people this well. That’s either very comforting or terrifying depending on your spiritual state! There’s just no way to misinterpret what God is saying here. He KNOWS people. Nothing is hid from Him. That’s why this is such a powerful verse for those of us who view abortion as an abomination. When an unborn child is aborted, regardless of when, a person is being killed – a person God knows personally. But, second, we can see how well God knows people; His knowledge isn’t just passive. In the case of Jeremiah (and others mentioned in the Bible), God had definite plans in store for him. The unborn Jeremiah was “set apart” for a very specific task: to be a prophet. Theologically, this “setting apart” by God is how the Old Testament views sanctification. For a person or even a nation to be “holy” means that God had chosen them to be His own to be used for His purposes. In the case of Jeremiah, God had chosen him for a very specific purpose.

God provides the message

Ah, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 1:6 – 8 TNIV)

God commanded him to be a prophet, but Jeremiah was worried. He was young. He felt completely under qualified. But whom God calls, God equips. The Lord didn’t care about Jeremiah’s age or his inexperience. He promised to be with the prophet and to protect him. The Lord’s personal and abiding presence would be forever accompany Jeremiah.

This exchange reminds us of another conversation:

Moses said to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” The Lord said to him, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”. (Exodus 4:10 – 12 TNIV)

We really should learn to relax and stop being so self-centered and live more God-centered lives. Nothing is impossible for God! God always implements His own plans.

Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth.” (Jeremiah 1:9 TNIV)

That’s the essence of prophecy; a person speaking God’s word. When a Christian tries to speak using his own words – or, as we might also say, using his own talents and abilities – his message must necessarily be suspect. Remember what James wrote:

The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by human beings… (James 3:6, 7 TNIV)

The true prophet; God’s genuine ministers, will be like Moses and Jeremiah and be humble enough to realize their shortcomings. Paul did. And that’s why he wrote this:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. ” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9, 10 TNIV)

That’s not an insignificant sentence of self-realization: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” That’s because when a person finally realizes their genuine weaknesses or shortcomings, he will finally start trusting in God. Self confidence is a wonderful thing, but it can work against the Christian unless self confidence is viewed as having confidence in your position in God.

God’s message to the people through Jeremiah was a depressing one. There was no “light at the end of the tunnel.” The die had been cast and there was no way to avoid the coming judgment. This was Jeremiah’s message. Jeremiah was given the job nobody would have applied for. But even though the message was a tough one, God consoled His prophet with this:

Get yourself ready! Stand up and say to them whatever I command you. Do not be terrified by them, or I will terrify you before them.” (Jeremiah 1:17 TNIV)

 

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