My student Lauren Anders is doing an independent study on Jeremiah. The focus of her work is to study Jeremiah’s six laments and discover how the laments apply to the task of the ministry.
One of the requirements for the course was to read and write a review of Terence E. Fretheim’s book Jeremiah (Macon: Smith & Helwys, 2002). The review below was presented by Lauren as part of the requirements for the course.
One of my favorite parts of this book was when Fretheim discusses Jeremiah’s doubts as to the validity of his own message. I identified with these same questions and fears. “How does he [Jeremiah] know for certain that the word he hears is the word of God that is to be spoken?” (p. 244).
I have asked myself similar questions. How do I know that I am saying what God wants me to say? Like Jeremiah, doubts creep into my mind, especially when I realize that my opinion is the minority opinion. I have also asked, “Can all of them be wrong and he [I] alone be right?” (p. 244). This is especially difficult when we are standing against other prophets and Christians.
The good part of all of this, though, is that the uncertainty forces us to truly listen for God’s voice. It strengthens our commitment to and relationship with God. Fretheim writes that “such a note of uncertainty is important for the prophet; it keeps him alert and open to new possibilities” (p. 244).
The same can be said for us today: uncertainty keeps us alert and open to new possibilities. It forces us to acknowledge that God may choose to work in ways previously unknown to us. Our task, then, is not to conform our opinions to those around us but rather to maintain our firm commitment to God and His word.
I recently had a discussion with a friend about the prosperity gospel. We both agreed that it does not seem to be firmly grounded in Scripture. I was also able to contribute that it is clearly not rooted in the book of Jeremiah. Fretheim notes that wealth is not a sign of blessing, but he adds another dimension to this discussion.
Fretheim further notes, “Wealth gained on the backs of others is not blessing; it is stealing, pure and simple” (p. 266). This reminds us that not only should we not seek wealth, but we should be also conscious of dishonest gain. Everything we have comes from the Lord, and we should be sure that what we have, and how we acquired it, brings honor to Him.
In his discussion of Jeremiah 18:18-23, Fretheim writes that “the people as a whole are given the status of adversary” (p. 275). I do not necessarily dispute this claim, although I do wonder about its implications. If the people as a whole were the adversary, does that mean that there were not any people at all who supported Jeremiah? Was the entire community against God as well? Or is this more of a rhetorical strategy than a point of fact?
I find it hard to believe that literally every person was against Jeremiah, especially when there are examples of people showing him kindness. For example, Ebed-Melech intervenes to free Jeremiah from the cistern in chapter 38. Baruch also put himself in danger to work with Jeremiah. Therefore, even if the adversary is the people as a whole, I believe that does not mean that every single person was against Jeremiah.
“It is worth remarking that Jeremiah, though complaining that God has deceived him, never suggests that the word that God has called him to proclaim is false” (p. 290). Since Fretheim thought this was worth remarking, I also thought it was worth mentioning.
I had never noticed this distinction before, but I think it is an important one to make, especially when considering ministry today. Even if ministers sometimes struggle with their call, that does not mean they struggle with the truth found in the word of God. I think we sometimes believe that it is inappropriate to reassess a call to ministry because it shows a lack of faith, but this is far from the truth. Just as Jeremiah’s complaints did not lessen his belief in the word of God, so our questions and evaluations do not lessen our commitment to the Lord.
The idea of testing was mentioned earlier, regarding chapter 17, and it is mentioned again during chapter 20. Fretheim writes, “Testing is inherent to all relationships of consequence: will those involved remain faithful to the relationship in the face of every circumstance?”(p. 294). I believe this situation is similar to my comment above: questions do not lessen our commitment to God’s word. Therefore, testing does not lessen our commitment to God’s word either.
Some people today still hold to the idea that testing means that you are doing something wrong. Perhaps it is some branch of the prosperity gospel; perhaps it is misinterpretation of Scripture. Whatever the reason for such a conclusion, it is a false one. As we see repeatedly throughout Jeremiah, testing did not diminish his faithfulness, and he remained in the will of God. If anything, the testing strengthened his relationship with God because he remained true to Him in the face of adversity.
I connected with Fretheim’s description that the last two laments in 20:7-18 are like a “sharp cry in the night ending in a sharp question” (p. 296). He further writes that laments can “end with deep questioning even after statements of trust and confidence” (p. 296). I think many people today can identify with crying sharply to God in the night and asking hard questions. Yet again, it is important to remember that questions do not negate trust and confidence in God. Just as it was acceptable for Jeremiah to cry and question, so it is acceptable for us.
The final point I want to discuss is the idea of having a relationship with God. Fretheim writes that people of genuine faith can ask questions and pray to God. “This is the type of honest interactions that God encourages in relationships, and the text often gives evidence for this kind of relationship with Jeremiah” (p. 299) Therefore, this is the type of relationship that is encouraged for us as well.
As followers of Christ, we have been given the opportunity to have an open relationship with God, one characterized by honest communication. We do not need to be afraid to bring anything before Him: our fears, praises, questions, or thankfulness. God loves us and wants to be in relationship with us, and we must strive to constantly deepen that relationship.
M. Div. Student
Northern Baptist Seminary