Commentary: Jeremiah 1:4-10
Setting and Purpose
Following the superscription to the book in verses 1-3, verses 4-10 set forth Jeremiah's account of his call to the prophetic office. The two visions reported in verses 11-19, while not included in the lectionary selection, should probably also be understood as integral to the call narrative, for they serve to give content and specificity to the mission which the Lord confers upon the prophet in verse 10.
In general terms, the call narrative recounts the divine origin of Jeremiah's ministry. This establishes his credentials as an authentic messenger of Yahweh. As background preparation the preacher might want to compare this text to other OT call stories (cf. Gen 12:1-9, Ex 3:1-14, Is 6:1-13, Ez 1:1-3:27).
The opening prose section of the book gives us the historical setting of the text. Jeremiah's call comes during the 13th year of Josiah's reign (627 B.C.), and his ministry continues through the fall of Jerusalem (587) on into the Exile. Preachers would do well to read the accounts of this period in 2 Kings 21-25 and 2 Chronicles 33-36.
Those accounts show that Jeremiah's call and early ministry unfold against the background of a reform-minded king struggling to deal with unprecedented corruption in Judah's national life. Josiah's reforms, however, were destined to fall short, as indicated by the Word which Jeremiah is given to deliver: God has set his face against Judah's sins, and terrible judgment is about to be administered at the hands of "tribes and kingdoms of the north". Jeremiah's office establishes him as both the theological interpreter, and in a certain sense the instrument (cf. v. 10!), of God's fearful judgment of the nation of Judah.
Verse by Verse Commentary
V. 4: The divine Word comes to Jeremiah. He does not seek it. It is not the fruit of inward searching. It breaks in as an alien presence, a divine address which seizes the prophet and claims him. Is such a Word present today? Christians confess that this Word has become incarnate, and meets us as the voice of the risen Christ claiming and confronting us through the words of scripture in the power of the Holy Spirit.
This inbreaking Word is different from our words. Martin Luther observed that ordinary human language consists of "sign-words": Signifiers which allow us to name and describe the world around us. God's Word, on the other hand, is a "deed-word"--active power which goes forth to accomplish God's work (cf. verse 10, Gen 1, Is 55:10-11, Jn 1:3).
V. 5: In the deepest sense, Jeremiah's life (and ours!) has its origins in the will and intention and purposes of God. Jeremiah's calling is to the task of witness--as bearer of the divine Word, it is he who bears testimony to that which others do not see, namely, the inexorable working-out of God's will and judgment in the terrible events of Judah's fall. Perhaps there is an analogy here to Christians as bearers of the divine Word--those who see and give testimony to the ultimate working out of God's will and judgment in Jesus Christ, in the church, and in the world.
Vv. 6-7: The prophet is, in the strictest sense, without qualifications for the job. Jeremiah's status as a "youth" reflects the general limitations of human beings in the face of God's calling--none of us can conjure up the divine Word out of our own resources.
It is to Jeremiah's credit that he recognizes his own inadequacy, and so hesitates to accept the duties of the prophetic office (cf. his description in 20:9!). An interesting contrast might be drawn to the self-styled "prophets" of every age who leap so eagerly at the chance to mount the pulpit and deliver words of their own devising. So the apostle James warns his disciples (Jas 3:1) against an excessive eagerness to become teachers and spokespersons for God. The ability to bear faithful witness--to accomplish the tasks in the world for which the Word is given--is a power which resides not in the speaker but only in the Word itself (v.7). Thus a recurrent feature in biblical call narratives is the addressees' recognition of personal inadequacy (cf. Ex 3:11, Is 6:5, Ez 1:28, Lk 5:8).
V. 8: It is evident from these assurances which God gives that Jeremiah's mission will arouse a great deal of opposition and persecution. (For a glimpse of the kind of personal anguish the prophet suffered, see chapters 19-20.) The Word of God borne into the midst of a sinful world leads finally to a cross. Seen in this light, the church ought not to be surprised to find itself lead ing a precarious existence, wracked by suffering and struggle, and sustained only by the promise that "I am with you to deliver you." The path of faithfulness was for Jeremiah one which brought a great deal of pain and struggle which he otherwise would not have experienced. The same may be true for us today.
Vv. 9-10: God understands that human beings are not simply verbal creatures, and so he touches Jeremiah's mouth as a visible sign and confirmation of the Word (cf. Ez 3:1-3). The analogy to the sacraments is obvious.
Finally, verse 10 indicates the divine power which Jeremiah will mediate through his faithful proclamation: The Word unleashed into history will bring about the rise and fall of nations and kingdoms (cf. Lk 1:47-55; 2:34). Is this work of the Word which takes place in Jeremiah's time any more or less impressive than its working today--in human hearts, in the Christian community, or on the stage of history? Like the prophet, the church is the bearer of the Word in time and history. Through faithful proclamation it becomes God's instrument in binding and loosing of souls on earth and heaven (Mt 16:19), destroying and overthrowing the old creation in its bondage to sin and death, and building and planting the new creation of love, joy, peace, hope, and life everlasting.
P. Mark Achtemeier Durham, North Carolina