Jeremiah was called to the prophetic ministry in 627 B.C. during the reign of Josiah, king of Judah. Jeremiah was called to proclaim the word of the Lord: “O land, land, land, hear the word of the LORD!” (Jeremiah 22:29). Jeremiah was called to proclaim the severe judgment of God which would culminate with the three deportations of Judah. Because of the harsh message Jeremiah was preaching to Judah, Jeremiah struggled with his ministry. Jeremiah was a prophet whose heart was filled with pain.
Jeremiah’s struggle with his ministry is reflected in his use of the word “deceived” in Jeremiah 20:7. The words of Jeremiah 20:7 are taken from Jeremiah’s fifth personal lament. There are six laments or confessions of Jeremiah. They are listed as follows:
First Confession: Jeremiah 11:18-12:6
Second Confession: Jeremiah 15:10-21
Third Confession: Jeremiah 17:14-18
Fourth Confession: Jeremiah 18:18-23
Fifth Confession: Jeremiah 20:7-13
Sixth Confession: Jeremiah 20:14-18
The six prayers or confessions of Jeremiah provide an intimate insight into the personal and spiritual struggles Jeremiah experienced as a result of his call to the prophetic ministry and the predicament he faced in carrying out his work as God’s prophet.
The confessions of Jeremiah are directly related to his call to the prophetic ministry. The call of Jeremiah in chapter one comes in the context of a personal experience with YHWH in which God made several promises to him. However, in the course of his ministry, Jeremiah came to believe that these promises were not kept. What Jeremiah believed to be broken promises became the source of his pain and torment.
The fifth lament is preceded by Jeremiah’s encounter with Pashhur, the priest who was charged with maintaining security in the temple (Jeremiah 20:1-6). After Pashhur heard Jeremiah prophesying in the temple, he rejected Jeremiah’s message, whipped him, and then ordered Jeremiah to be placed in prison.
Because of his message of destruction and violence, Jeremiah became a laughingstock in Judah, a source of public ridicule. Scorned and mocked by the people, humiliated by the religious leaders of Judah, Jeremiah began the fifth lament with harsh words addressed to God. Jeremiah’s words reflect his struggle with God and express his feelings that he was betrayed by God and left alone to face humiliation and shame.
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 (Jeremiah 20:7 ESV).
The Hebrew word pittitani, “you have deceived me,” literally means “to entice, to deceive, to persuade.” When the Hebrew verb is used with the idea of enticement, the word appears in the context of a man seducing or raping a woman (Exodus 22:15). The words also can be used to warn an immature person not to be enticed by sinners (Proverbs 1:10).
When YHWH called Jeremiah, he told the prophet to stand firm before the people and not to break, for he would be made a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall before the people of Judah. In addition, God told Jeremiah that the people would fight against him but they would not prevail:
But you, gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. Do not break down before them, or I will break you before them. And I for my part have made you today a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall, against the whole land – against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the Lord, to deliver you (Jeremiah 1:17-19).
Jeremiah began his prophetic ministry with the assurance of God’s promises of protection, but because of rejection and opposition, Jeremiah felt he was deceived by YHWH. The English word “deceive” carries the same meaning as the Hebrew word for rape used in Exodus 22:15. Thus, Jeremiah, feeling a deep sense of betrayal because of the people’s rejection of his ministry, complained that God had deceived him since his message was rejected and his ministry seemed so fruitless.
The words of Jeremiah in 20:7 express his frustration and disillusionment as he tried to minister to the people of Judah. Jeremiah believed that YHWH had deceived him into being a prophet with the promise of divine protection. If God had promised to be with him, why then was he rejected by the people?
In explaining the words of Jeremiah, James Crenshaw, in his book A Whirlpool of Torment (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), p. 39, wrote:
“In the quotation from Jer. 20:7 above, Jeremiah accuses God of rape. This is no trivial accusation, nor is it uttered in a flippant manner. The words are carefully chosen to cover the act of seduction and accompanying violence. The astonishing thing is that the very one who insisted that the young prophet adopt celibacy as a way of life has violated his obedient charge. Jeremiah feels entirely vulnerable to the smooth words of the Lord, just as an innocent young girl is no match for experienced lovers.”
Jeremiah’s feeling of seduction and betrayal stems from his feeling that he was forced into the prophetic ministry. Jack Lundbom, in his commentary Jeremiah 1-20 (New York: Doubleday, 1999), p. 858, wrote: “Jeremiah begins this confession by complaining directly to Yahweh about his call to prophesy, alleging that Yahweh took advantage of his youth by forcing him into submission.”
How should we evaluate Jeremiah’s call to the ministry?
Jeremiah struggled in his service for God, but he does not struggle alone. Every person who has been called into the ministry of God’s Word has sat alone with God. Those who are in the ministry can understand the broken heart of Jeremiah in his hour of loneliness.
The call to serve God in ministry is an indispensable aspect of the ministry. The ministry is a very rewarding and fulfilling vocation. However, the ministry is also a challenge that is beset with acceptance and rejection.
Jeremiah’s despair did not lead him to abandon his prophetic ministry. What sustained him throughout his ministry was the same sense of divine call that made him suffer. In remaining faithful to his call, Jeremiah exercised his persistent faith in God’s promise. Although Jeremiah complained to God concerning his rejection, his confidence in the Lord’s promises allowed him to remain faithful to his mission.
Through his confessions Jeremiah admits that he is weak and helpless, but by confessing his weakness and helplessness to God, he realizes that his power and strength come from his reliance on the very promises that YHWH had made at the time of the call.
Through his confessions Jeremiah realizes that he is unable to carry on his ministry without YHWH. Without God’s help Jeremiah cannot prevail against his enemies. Jeremiah knows that, as a prophet and as an individual, he is completely dependent upon YHWH. It is through the promises he received at the time of the call that Jeremiah is able to gain the confidence he needs to know he will overcome the threats made against him, and proclaim the message he received from YHWH.
Jeremiah’s personal laments evoke compelling emotions because they reflect the many struggles that are analogous to the struggles of those who are called by God to serve in the ministry. The deep sentiments of despair and hope expressed by the prayers of Jeremiah are, at times, intrinsic components of the prophetic office.
Jeremiah’s experience of loneliness and rejection, of ridicule and humiliation can become an illustration of the experience of God’s ministers today. His struggle with God can also become a reality in the life of one who has received a call from God.
It is this sense of rejection and this feeling of loneliness that often awakens in ministers the desire to leave the ministry, as Jeremiah tried to do but could not. Jeremiah’s experience with God and his personal laments can bring encouragement to those who are in ministry today. Those who have experienced God’s call must experience God afresh every day. Every day, those who are called by God must experience God as the one who gives them victory over their failures and doubts, victory against opposition and despair.
In the end, there is one thing we learn from Jeremiah’s experience with God: notwithstanding the fact that divine call may bring rejection and loneliness, the call must create a stubborn refusal to abandon God, even when this refusal to give up on God may be the source of our complaint.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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