Commentary: Jeremiah 1:4-10
This first-person account of Jeremiah's call follows a third-person introduction of Jeremiah (1:1-3). In many ways it anticipates what is to come in the book containing the "words" (1:1, or "deeds" or "history") of Jeremiah. The themes of "plucking and planting," "destroying and building" (v. 10) are repeated several times in the book (18:7-9; 24:6; 31:28; 42:10; 45:4). The doom and hope symbolized by these metaphors punctuate Jeremiah's message to Judah. Jeremiah's identity as "a prophet to the nations" (1:5) is justified by the content of his message concerning the future of Judah faced with external threat and God's judgment, whether or not the oracles against the nations (chapters 46-51) are to be attributed to him. His reluctance to be a prophet (1:6) resonates with his laments and his complaints against God found in 11:18-20:18. The call vision, then, forms a fitting introduction to Jeremiah and his message.
This passage is a short narrative dominated by dialogue between Jeremiah and Yahweh. It has sufficient similarities to other call narratives (Is 6:1-13; Ez 1:1-3:15; 1 Sam 3:1-14; Ex 3:1-12) to lead some to conclude that a basic form of call/commission stories had become traditional. The call story serves the purpose of authenticating the prophet's message more than providing biographical information, though it may also do the latter. Like other prophets, Jeremiah will go on to challenge the religious certainties of his time, as well as the political and religious authorities. The call story answers the question, "Who gives you the authority to do these things?" It also reveals the basis of Jeremiah's inner assurance that makes it possible for him to continue proclaiming God's word in the face of opposition and hostility. The affirmation of prenatal predestination (1:5; cf. Is 49:1, 5) should be understood in this connection as well. It says less about the question of divine sovereignty-human freedom or the question of when human life begins than it does about the firm conviction that Jeremiah was fulfilling God's will and the purpose of his own life.
"The word of the LORD came to me" does not in this case (cf. 2:1, 11:1) introduce an oracle that Jeremiah is to proclaim; rather, it represents God's direct address to Jeremiah that confronts him with God's claim on his life. Like the oracles, however, this word does inform Jeremiah of God's decision, in this case that Jeremiah has been consecrated to be a prophet. Like the oracles of God to Judah, God's decision is conditional upon Jeremiah's response. God's oracles express what God intends to do given the current situation unless Judah repents; but if Israel will "amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place" then God will dwell again with them" (7:3,7). So also the word of God to Jeremiah implies the necessity of Jeremiah's response in order for God's call to come to fruition.
Jeremiah responds with terms that express complaint: "Ah, Lord GOD" (see 4:10; 14:13). God's call seems unreasonable and unjust, one that Jeremiah neither welcomes nor is prepared for. Jeremiah protests, "I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy" (1:6). His response reminds one of Moses' response: Moses protests, "Who am I?" ("Why me?"), they will not believe me, I am not eloquent (Ex 3:11; 4:1, 10). Given the formidable task that God has assigned to Jeremiah, his excuses seem reasonable. Regardless of their reasonableness, however, God does not accept their validity. God responds to the excuses in reverse order, refuting first Jeremiah's complaint that he is only a "boy" (any male from childhood to young adulthood). His age is irrelevant because he will be God's emissary (1:7); from that fact and not from his age will he gain his credentials. Second, his lack of speaking ability will not determine the effectiveness of his words: "you shall speak whatever I command you," implies that the Word of God will accomplish its purpose regardless of the human limitations of the one who utters it.
God reassures youthful and inexperienced Jeremiah: "I am with you to deliver you" (v. 8). That word does not entirely comfort; it implies that Jeremiah will need deliverance because the message he will deliver will be resisted by the general populace as well as by the religious and political authorities. Like Jesus after him (see Lk 4:21-30), Jeremiah will suffer hostility and rejection because what he says is not what people want to hear, and because people will identify what they want to hear instead of what the prophet proclaims with the word of God.
Once Jeremiah knows God has touched his mouth and hears, "I have put my words in your mouth" (v. 9), he must speak the message God gives, not the message he might relish. The message comes as both good news and bad news for Israel. The message will have power because it is from God. In that sense Jeremiah will be "over nations and over kingdoms" (v.10), not as their ruler but as the one who proclaims the Word of God that will determine their future. That word will "pluck up and break down, destroy and overthrow" insofar as injustice, unfaithfulness and unright-eousness determine national life and international relations. Its final intent, however, is not negative but positive; the word of God spoken by Jeremiah intends "to build and to plant" a nation of justice, faithfulness and righteousness.
Jeremiah's response to God's reassurance and commission does not appear immediately, but the book of Jeremiah as a whole reveals that Jeremiah undertook the task, however difficult and distasteful it often was and regardless of how isolated and despised it caused him to be. A genuinely prophetic ministry in any context can expect similar results, just as it can similarly expect the sustaining presence of the God who calls persons and churches to such a ministry.
R. David Kaylor Davidson College Davidson, NC