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The Prophetic Calling of Jeremiah


Sabbath School Commentary for discussion on Sabbath, October 3, 2015


Jeremiah 1 opens this epic work by introducing Jeremiah to the reader. His time and location, as well as his task and personality, will receive attention. In this way Jeremiah 1 presents the framework for the entire book. The following building blocks form this unit:

A.      Verses 1-3                   Contours of the person Jeremiah

B.      Verses 4-10                 Call to Ministry

C.      Verses 11-16              Inaugural Visions

D.      Verses 17-19              Armored for Battle

A. Contours of the person Jeremiah (1:1-3)

1. Location

Joshua 21:9-19 clarifies that Anathoth was assigned to become a priestly residential area with pastures for agricultural activity. Some of David’s warriors came from this city (2 Sam 23:27; 1 Chr 11:28; 12:3; 27:12), which is located about 5km northeast from Jerusalem. After the abolition of Adoniah’s rival, Solomon exiled the priest Abjathar from the temple service to Anathoth. Abjathar supported Adoniah’s attempt to usurp the Davidic throne (1 Kings 2:26). The GT clarifies that Jeremiah did not only relate to the people of Anathoth, but also lived there (ὃς κατῴκει ἐν Αναθωθ). From this we can assume that Jeremiah must have been well educated (as a Levite) and at the same time knew the craft of a farmer. He therefore was an insider to the priestly corruption and the economic situation of the common people (agricultural society) and well suited as an informed critic of the royal house and the priestly guild.

2. Kinship

Nothing definite is known about Hilkiah as Jeremiah’s father. We know of an Hilkiah as being the high priest during the time of King Josiah. It was this high priest who also found the book of the law (2 Kgs 22:4-14) through which a spiritual reform was initiated. However, Jeremiah 1:1 stresses that Jeremiah’s family came from Anathoth and not from Jerusalem. In addition Ezra 7:1 does not know of the well-known Jeremiah when the text mentions Hilkiah as the progenitor of Ezra. From this we can conclude that Jeremiah did not come from a well-known political influential priestly family.

3. Time

The text identifies King Jehoiakim and King Zedekiah as sons of Josiah. Hereby the reader is informed in a subtle way about the political confusion of the times. The royal succession of the last decades of Judah was not following the usual biological order of things but dictated by foreign powers (Egypt and Babel). While Nebuchadnezzar put Zedekiah in office as king, his nephew and former king Jehoiachin was exiled to Babylon. Jehoiachin himself succeeded his father Jehoiakim on the throne after the latter had died. Jehoiachin’s father, however, was replaced by the pharaoh Neco for King Jehoahaz, brother of Jehoiakim and son of the deceased King Josiah. Therefore, Jeremiah 1:2-4 communicated to its readers in exilic and post-exilic times that during the ministry of the prophet, Judah no longer had political matters in one hand.
In Jeremiah 3:6, 25:3, and Jeremiah 36:2 we learn that Jeremiah was an active prophet during the reign of Josiah (640 BC-609 BC). The thirteenth year of the reign of King Josiah equals 627/626 BC and should be taken as the year of prophetic appointment. According to 2 Chronicles 34:3 it was a year earlier that King Josiah started his religious reform. At that time Josiah was twenty years old (cf. 2 Kgs 22:1; 2 Chr 34:1). From Jeremiah 1:6-7 we learn that the prophet considers himself as not mature (כִּי־נַ֖עַר אָנֹֽכִי). Both King Josiah and the prophet Jeremiah then must have been of similar young age while influencing the spiritual destiny of Judah.[1] It puzzles any reader of Jeremiah, however, why Josiah’s reform is nowhere mentioned nor does Jeremiah speak about a bond that Jeremiah and Josiah have shared. From other sources we can, however, derive that both must have teamed up for Judah’s reformation (cf. 2 Chr 35:25). God might have called Jeremiah into the prophetic ministry in order to support Josiah’s own religious efforts. Instead of focusing on the partnership that Jeremiah must have had, the book confronts the reader with a picture of a young, independent, and at times lonely, prophet whose lack of human support was more characterizing than the spiritual bonds that he must have had with Josiah.
The prophetic ministry exceeded the eleventh year of King Zedekiah (586 BC), in which the destruction of Jerusalem took place (Jer 39-44). The introduction to the book decides to focus on the end of Judah rather than on the end of Jeremiah’s prophetic career. The message is that to the very end God does not leave the people alone but remains speaking through his messenger, searching for a solution. The timespan of forty years that results from the dating of Jeremiah 1:3 creates one of several similarities between the prophet Jeremiah and the great prophet Moses.

4. Prophetic events

Before Jeremiah, no other prophetic book emphasizes the understanding that God’s word is happening (וַיְהִ֥י דְבַר־יְהוָ֖ה).[2] In Isaiah we find this formulation only one time (Isa 38:4) while it appears twenty-nine times in Jeremiah (cf. Jer 1:11, 13, 2:1, 14:1, etc.). Only the later Ezekiel and Zechariah use this formulation as frequently, creating the impression that they follow a conceptual understanding that Jeremiah has created. Eighty of the 105 occurrences in the Old Testament stem from these three books. For Jeremiah, the word of God is not just a mental concept that one could regard as the material of communication. The word of God is an event that engages the prophet in a meeting and discourse with God himself. The word of God affects and changes lives. When the word of God happens it is not only heard but requests a response (cf. verses 11, 13) and might rather be seen in visions than heard (cf. Jer 1:11-19, especially Jer 38:21). This very concept as the word of God being engaging appears first in Deuteronomy 6:6 where the word of God (the law) is asked to settle upon the heart. Jeremiah then will experience the word of God as involving, demanding, painful, but also as patient, considerate and caring.

5. General insights

a. God’s presence is real

These verses clarify that the word of God is present in a concrete time and a specific space. It is truly partaking in the history of man. YHWH does not speak in metaphysical supernatural terms but very real in a concrete, historical socio-political context.

b. Jeremiah as second Moses

With the identification of Jeremiah the similarity to Moses are established. Both ministered for 40 years to the people of God, both were of Levitical kinship, both steeped in the religious and socio-political scene as outsiders while at the same time very well trained in intellectual and practical matters. Both considered themselves as unable to speak publicly (cf. Jer 1:6, Ex 4.10), while both received the promise that God will be with their mouth (cf. Jer 1:9, Ex 4:15) and both experienced the speaking of God as involving all of human existence. The reader then is reminded about the exodus narrative and searches to compare Moses’ Exodus with Jeremiah’s Enodus: How is the nation receiving God Law and His word?

B. Call to Ministry(1:4-10)

What does it look like, when the Word of the Lord happens? This question is raised in verses 2-3. With verse 4, and the initiated narration of the following verses, an answer is given. The narration is clearly dialogical. YHWH's speaking allows for man's responses, and it is man's response that is integrated in YHWH's speaking. Man gets a role, an essential function in the talking of YHWH.

1. “Happened to me” (verse 4)

While the MT moves Jeremiah from the third person to the first person (וַיְהִ֥י דְבַר־יְהוָ֖ה אֵלַ֥י) the Codex Vaticanus (CV) and Codex Sinaiticus (CS) keep the descriptive third person (προς αυτον). However, verse 6 in the CV and CS also refer to Jeremiah as first person. This is a typical feature of Jeremiah. The perspective of the “objective” narrator shifts regularly to the perspective of the “subjective” individual Jeremiah. By these means the reader learns that the historian (presenting Jeremiah in third person) wants us to understand that Jeremiah’s witness is true and not an idealistic version of real history. In addition, the shifting of perspectives in the text makes the reader relate to both the objective facts of history and the subjective inner life of Jeremiah as an individual.

2. “I have formed you”

God stresses in verse 5 that he is a personal creator and uses the same terminology that we know from Genesis 2:7 (יצר). Since the time of creation the Being of Man is brought into existence with the same care and compassion as a potter (יֹוצֵר) creates his sculptures. This particularly intimate understanding of the God-man relationship is stressed in Jeremiah 18 and 19. The intimacy is emphasized further by God knowing (יְדַעְתִּ֔יךָ) and wanting Jeremiah (cf. Gen 18:19, Am 3:2).

3. “I have consecrated you”

God consecration is of special nature here as he clarifies that in the case of Jeremiah he had a specific plans with him: becoming a prophet (נָבִיא). No other Old Testament book uses the word נָבִיא so frequently (95 times out of a total of 315). The word appears in the earlier prophets but is only used a few times in the later prophets. God understood the role of Jeremiah to be similar to the role of the earlier prophets, who were chosen in order to guide His people through royal history. In that time each king had his prophetic antagonist (Saul-Samuel, David-Nathan, Ahab-Elijah, etc.) As it turns out, Jeremiah would be the last prophet of the royal era and the antagonist of the last three kings of Judah.

4. “Ah, Lord, YHWH”

In verse 6 we get closer to Jeremiah’s specific way of speaking (אֲהָהּ֙ אֲדֹנָ֣י יְהֹוִ֔ה). It has been used before, once each by Joshua (Jos 7:7) and Gideon (Judg 6:22), but is used repeatedly by Jeremiah (1:6, 4:10, 14:13, 32:17). It is a “cry in the face of fear” (HALOT). The fear of being rejected and laughed at makes Jeremiah resists the call of God.  The excuse of being too young and not a good speaker build the climax in a chiastic structure:
                nations (5c)
                                behold (6b)
                                                speak (6b)
                                                                a young man (6c)
                                                                a young                man (7b)
                                                speak (7d)
                                behold (9d)
                nations (10b)

But Jeremiah’s argument is contrasted by his treasury of words and his great rhetoric skills, as we find in the many poetry sections of his book.[3] Therefore the real reasons for his resistance must be sought in the social isolation and possible persecution that comes with the prophetic ministry. Jeremiah knows that most prophets have not died natural deaths (cf. Jer 26:20-24). In contrast to Isaiah (Isa 6:8), then, Jeremiah quarrels with his vulnerability.

5. “I am with you” (verses 8-9):

Whenever God asks a young life (look under “time” [1:1-3] for “נַעַר”) to enter a challenging mission he promises to be with him (e.g. Moses: Ex 3.12, Joshua:  Josh 1:5, 9, 17, Gideon: Judg 6:12, 16, Israel/general: Isa 41:10), and to guide the rhetoric and content of their speech (Moses: Ex 4:25).  This also informs the reader that Jeremiah’s words should not be taken lightly but rather as divine words. In fact Jeremiah himself stresses that God’s words are found in his speech (Jeremiah 15:16).
Fear is not needed (Abraham: Gen 15:1, Joshua 1:9) as salvation is promised (לְהַצִּלֶ֖ךָ). נצל in its Hifil form means to “tear from”, “pull out”.  Jeremiah, therefore cannot expect an easy life, despite the presence of God, but he can expect that within the battles of his life God will rescue him (cf. Jeremiah 37-40). The GT makes it even more explicit (ἐξαιρεῖσθαί is one of the central words in Jeremiah 1 in the GT) that Jeremiah will not be protected from harm, but that he will be rescued from harmful situations.

God therefore presents himself as being present in suffering. Jeremiah will undergo pain and capture (e.g. 11:18-20, 12:1-3, 18:19-23; 20:7-10). The Hebrew word נצל appears several times in Jeremiah and refers to both Jeremiah’s rescue (e.g. Jer 1:8, 19; 15:20, 21) and the failing of the people to rescue the poor (e.g. Jer 20:13, 21:12, 22:3). God then does what his own people are not doing, he rescues the poor and needy (Jer 20:11-13). Jeremiah will demonstrate repeatedly that God is the one who suffers even more than the prophet. God’s presence appears therefore often as the presence of identification. God identifies with the suffering one. His presence is not of a magical nature, making one’s problems disappear in an instant. In contrast the prophet struggles regularly with the apparent absence of God (e.g. Jeremiah 28:5-11).
Jeremiah’s experience tell us that the promise of divine presence comes in three aspects:

a.       Promise of identification: God shows in Jeremiah that he identifies with the one’s suffering and that is empathy is real as he himself suffers the most.

b.      Promise of communication: While God appears to be distance he comes close through communication. Obviously the boldness with which Jeremiah appears to the priest Pashhur after being jailed in Jeremiah 20:1-6 builds upon God’s speaking to his prophet in prison (cf. Jer 20:4). Similarly Jeremiah appears to be recovered from the public denunciation by Hananiah in Jeremiah 28 after God has spoken to him (Jer 28:12). In both cases God does not save the prophet from denunciation and imprisonment but reestablishes his trustworthiness to the people with predications that come true.

c.       Promise of redemption: Despite the emotional and physical suffering, and despite the apparent absence of God, Jeremiah receives confidence through the experience of God’s redemption from prison, torture, and persecution. Jeremiah 20:7-13 illustrates well how the accusation of God (due to His absence) and the appraisal of God (due to His redeeming sympathy) come together in a poetic masterpiece.

6. Global perspective (verse 10)

The fact that Jeremiah is called to minister as a prophet of explicit global format is new to the Old Testament. The book then wants to clarify that the political and military commotion within and among the great nations of the ancient world in the seventh and sixth centuries (Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt) is not to be seen as a sign of God’s absence but  rather as a manifestation of God’s presence in this world. The fall and rise of nations are not by accident or the result of political power plays but can only be understood fully through the intended divine involvement that executes justice through punishment (e.g. Jer 46-51) and salvation (e.g. Jer 30-33). Verse 15 clarifies unmistakably with its attention attracting “Behold” (הִנְנִי) that the originator of this showdown is God (הִנְנִ֣י קֹרֵ֗א). With the “to root out and to pull down, to destroy and to throw down, to build and to plant” we find one of the dominant themes in the book of Jeremiah, where God appears as gardener and architect: There is only hope for the hopeless, only stable houses on new grounds, only plants for the cultivated field. Salvation comes when destruction is fully realized.

C. Inaugural Visions(1:11-16)

The prophetic call is supported by two visions that clarify Jeremiah’s role.

1. First vision (verses 11-12)

The display of the branch of an almond tree (מַקֵּ֥ל שָׁקֵ֖ד) is used as a metaphor for the truthfulness of God’s word. God is watching (שֹׁקֵ֥ד) his own word come true. The metaphorical function is established by the almost identical sounds of the Hebrew words for almond tree – the first tree that blossoms in the spring season, and the activity of watching. The affirmation that God’s word will be executed gives Jeremiah the guarantee that he will not be put to shame by his opponents for speaking untrue words. Jeremiah’s career shows that he can be bold through building his confidence in God’s words (e.g. Jer 28:15-17).

2. Second vision (v13-16)

The imagery of the boiling pot about to spill its contents to the south symbolizes the impending historical events. The enemy of the north will dominate the speech of Jeremiah in the first part of the book. The identity of the enemy of the north must have been unclear for Jeremiah at first (in 627/6 BC different nations could offer themselves as potential thread). Later in his career he was able to identify Babylon as the invader of the north. The imagery of the boiling pot might also indicate that the meal of judgment has been carefully prepared and the food is ready to be “eaten”.

The “thrones at the entry of the gates” illustrate the global and even cosmic dimension that comes with the destruction of Jerusalem. The judgment scene sees the world coming together around Jerusalem and watching divine judgment on the immorality and infidelity of God’s people. God originally intended to show his character through the global blessings that Abraham’s offspring bring to the people (Gen 12:3). Now, however, the revelation of his character follows a different route. By means of judgment, as a via negativa, God will clarify what he stands for, what he understands by social justice and loyalty. Jeremiah proves that through this divine judgment, the nations come to grasp God’s understanding of goodness (cf. Jer 40:1-3).

D. Armored for battle (1:17-19)

After the two visions God returns to his prophetic call (verse 17). This seems necessary since the content and the global scope of Jeremiah as prophet of judgment must have truly been frightening. While offering Jeremiah divine support God appears to be desperate to get Jeremiah to accept the call. He threatens him with the potential aggression of the people. Glimpses of divine desperation shine through again and again in the book. In contrast to the MT the GT prevents the understanding of God threatening Jeremiah by repeating that he should not be terrified (μηδὲ πτοηθῇς ἐναντίον αὐτῶν instead of פֶּֽן־אֲחִתְּךָ֖ לִפְנֵיהֶֽם) since God will be with him to rescue him (ὅτι μετὰ σοῦ ἐγώ εἰμι τοῦ ἐξαιρεῖσθαί σε, a repetition of verse 8).

Verses 18-19: The role of Jeremiah will be similar to the one of a soldier sent to the front line of battle. Here however, the front line creates the impression of a “one against all” scenario. The only explicit warrior partner Jeremiah will have is God himself. With God at your side, however, any war can be won (cf. Ps 18). The imagery of arming up for an end time scenario might have informed the famous Pauline “Whole Armor of God” (Eph 6:10-20). At times being the partner of God means to live a life of battle and solitude. The call of God ends with a repetition of verse 8: God will rescue in the middle of battle. While the earlier verses show the vulnerability of the Judean cities and Jerusalem, Jeremiah will stand as an unconquerable fortress.

[1] Holladay argues that Jeremiah was born in the 13th year of King Josiah. Such an interpretation is based upon Jer 1:5 were the procreation and the prophetic call can be taken as describing the same event. In addition in Jer 16:1-4 Jeremiah is called to abstain from marriage. Since Holladay suggests 601 BC (pharaoh Necco defeated the Babylonian army) he must have been quite old (about 50 years) when having received his prophetic call as a young adult in 627 BC. Consequently the prohibition of marriage is not any longer such a dilemma. However, when assuming that Jeremiah was born in 627 BC, then he must have been 26 years old and preparing to get married. This line of argumentation can be contested. First, the clause נָבִ֥יא לַגֹּויִ֖ם נְתַתִּֽיךָ(Jer 1:5) has not to be taken as an appositions that rephrases Jeremiah’s consecration. It can be taken as a statement independent of the two previous בְּטֶ֨רֶם –clauses. Second, any dating of Jer 16:1-4 has to be speculative since there are no deictic markers that help locating this section in time. Finally, in the presence of Jer 3:6, 25:3 and 36:2 taking the 13th year of Josiah as Jeremiah’s year of birth is problematic. For an overview on the discussion see Siegfried Herrmann, Jeremia: Der Prophet Und Das Buch (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1990), 4–7.

[2] Most English translations chose to render the Hebrew with “the word of the Lord came” (e.g. KJV, ESV, RSV, NIV). However, the literal translation should be “the word of the Lord happened” as both syntax and lexemes used mirror the וַיְהִ֥י clauses that initiate narrative texts.

[3] Most parts of Jer 2-6, 8-10, 15, 17, 46-51 are written as poetry. But poetic sections can also be found in many different chapters. For a complete overview see Herrmann, Jeremia: Der Prophet Und Das Buch, 41–52.

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