More than any other prophet in the Old Testament, Jeremiah’s life figures prominently in his book. Jeremiah contains a much larger amount of biographical narrative than we find in Isaiah, Ezekiel, and the Minor Prophets. And even in the poetic oracles Jeremiah delivers, we often find Jeremiah not simply repeating “Thus saith the LORD,” but actually talking back to God and expressing his feelings (usually negative) about his life as a prophet. These complaints are known as Jeremiah’s “Confessions,” and in a couple weeks we will look at one of them in more detail. For now, I want to go back to the beginning of Jeremiah’s story, where we see that the prophetic life was not something he chose, nor was it something he wanted.
Before I formed you in [your mother’s] belly, I knew you; and before you came out from the womb, I set you apart. I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. (Jer 1:5)
Two things stand out in God’s initial words to Jeremiah. First, Jeremiah was designated a prophet before he was conceived. Among biblical prophets, only Jeremiah is described in this manner. Several others are said to have been called as prophets from the womb (e.g., Moses, Samuel, John the Baptist). Only Jeremiah was called before he was formed in the womb. The Hebrew text is emphatic on this point, twice using the word beterem. Second, Jeremiah was set apart as a prophet. The Hebrew verb hiqdashti is based on the same verbal root as the words qadosh (holy) and qodesh (holiness). It could also be translated “I sanctified you,” “I consecrated you,” or “I made you holy.” But the word “holy” in English has taken on connotations of morality, which is not really what the various forms of qdsh mean. Qdsh means “to set apart for a special purpose.” The priests were qadosh because they alone were chosen to officiate in the temple. The temple was qadosh because it was (in Deuteronomic theology) the one place chosen by God for sacrifices to be made (see Deuteronomy 12). The items in the temple were qadosh because the were created for the sole purpose of use in God’s temple. You get the point. Jeremiah was created to be different. I’m not a Calvinist, but it would not be too much to say Jeremiah was predestined to be a prophet.
Of course, Jeremiah isn’t so keen on the idea. He did not choose to be a prophet. God made the choice for him!
I said, “Ah, sovereign LORD! Look, I do not know how to speak, for I am a young lad!” But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am a young lad,’ for you will go unto all to whom I send you, and you will speak all that I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to save you,” declares the LORD. Then the LORD stretched out his hand and touched my mouth and said, “See, I have put my words in your mouth.” (Jer 1:6-9)
Jeremiah’s protest recalls Moses, who likewise claimed that his inability to speak disqualified him from service (Exod 4:10). Unlike Moses, however, Jeremiah’s protest is grounded not upon disability but age. Jeremiah calls himself a na’ar, which designates a teenager or young adult (generally under the age of twenty). He is not a “child” in the modern sense, but an adolescent or young adult. Many scholars estimate that Jeremiah was between twelve and sixteen at his call. It is not so much that Jeremiah lacks the ability to speak, so much as he lacks the status to speak. He was not an elder, yet he would stand up to and rebuke elders. But God’s promise to protect Jeremiah would prove true, as it was, in fact, the elders who came to Jeremiah’s defense when a mob sought his execution (Jer 26:17-19).
One interesting feature shared by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel is that their prophetic call involved some sort of consecration of their mouths. Isaiah’s mouth is purified by a seraph touching his lips with a burning coal (Isa 6:6-7). Ezekiel is commanded to eat a scroll, presumably containing the words he was to speak (Ezek 3:1-3). God touches Jeremiah’s mouth and puts his words into it. As we read later in Jer 20:9, the word of the LORD inside Jeremiah is independent of Jeremiah’s will and cannot be contained. Jeremiah has no choice but to prophesy.
See, I appoint you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms–to uproot and to tear down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant. (Jer 1:10)
The nature of Jeremiah’s prophecy is anticipated here at the outset: two thirds of it is destructive, one third is constructive. In fact, if one considers the three major collections in the Book of Jeremiah–oracles against Judah (chs. 1-25), oracles of restoration (chs. 30-33), oracles against other nations (chs. 46-51)–it is indeed true that two of these are concerned with judgment and one is concerned with restoration.
The word of the LORD came to me, saying: “What do you see, Jeremiah?” And I said, “I see the branch of an almond tree.” Then the LORD said to me, “You have seen correctly, for I am watching over my word to do it.” Then the word of the LORD came to me a second time, saying: “What do you see?” And I said, “I see a boiling pot, and its face is pointing from the north.” Then the LORD said to me, “From the north destruction will break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land.” (Jer 1:11-14)
Like Isaiah’s (Isaiah 6) and Ezekiel’s (Ezekiel 1-3), Jeremiah’s call includes visions and dialogue with God. Unlike Isaiah and Ezekiel, Jeremiah does not see God’s throne, but rather two symbolic depictions of the coming judgment against Judah. The logic and meaning of these two visions is not at all apparent in English translation, for both depend upon Hebrew wordplays. In the first vision, Jeremiah sees a branch of an almond tree (shaqed). God’s response, which at first seems nonsensical, is a play on the word shaqed–“I am watching over (shoqed) my word to do it.” Both words are based on the same verbal root (shqd), and the almond tree was typically the first tree to bud in the spring, so one could “watch over” it in anticipation of the arrival of spring. Similarly, the second vision also makes use of a wordplay, although there are other symbolic elements at play here as well. Jeremiah sees a “boiling pot (sir naphuach), and its face is pointing from the north.” Once again, God’s response utilizes a wordplay from the vision–“From the north destruction will break forth (tipatach) upon all the inhabitants of the land.” Here the wordplay is a little less obvious, but in Hebrew the words naphuach and tipatach look and sound very similar. The imagery of a pot boiling over from the north also signifies that destruction is currently simmering, like a pot about to boil over, and it will spill into Judah from the north. The destruction the vision refers to is, of course, the Babylonian invasions in 597 and 586. While Babylon is east of Jerusalem, travel between Mesopotamia and Palestine typically followed the Euphrates River toward the northwest to the Orontes River and then down through Lebanon, entering Palestine from the north. It was much better than trying to cross the Syrian desert!
One final point of interest with regard to Jeremiah’s visions is their similarity and difference from dream divination as it was practiced in the ancient Near East. Jeremiah 1:11-14 follows closely the formula for dream divination found in ANE texts. There is a symbolic dream, a diviner questions the dreamer regarding what he saw, the dreamer reports the dream, the diviner repeats the dream word-for-word, and then the diviner interprets the dream. Wordplays are extremely common in these dream reports. What is somewhat unusual in Jeremiah is that it is God who functions as interpreter, rather than a human diviner. This is not without precedent in the ancient Near East, as occasionally gods interpret dreams and visions in myths and epics, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. But there is a consistent pattern in the Bible of God as revealer of mysteries, while humans are incapable of interpreting symbolic dreams and visions. Even in those instances in which a human does interpret dreams, such as Joseph in Genesis 40-41 and Daniel in Daniel 2; 4-5, credit is always given to God as the only one “who reveals mysteries” (Dan 2:28). From the very beginning of his prophetic career, it was clear that Jeremiah did not speak of his own accord or from his own ability. Rather, he was a mere vessel into which God put his word (Jer 1:9) and through which God spoke–whether he liked it or not.
–For Further Reading–
Lundbom, Jack R. Jeremiah 1-20: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible 21A. New York: Doubleday, 1999.
Melvin, David P. “The Divine Diviner.” Bible Study Magazine. March/April 2013: 44.
________. “There Is a God in Heaven Who Reveals Mysteries: Failed Divination and Divine Revelation in Daniel 2 and Genesis 41.” Bulletin for Biblical Research (forthcoming).
Thompson, J. A. The Book of Jeremiah. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980.