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An Introduction to Jeremiah, "The Weeping Prophet"

God's calling comes before comfort and security.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Jeremiah 1:4-19

In this introduction to Jeremiah ("the weeping prophet"), we learn about his historical and political situation and God's calling in his life. Ominously, God tells him that he will be like a fortified city, standing against the nations who will oppose his message of judgment. But God's sure calling in his life will sustain him through his dark times ahead.

Do not say, “I am only a youth,” for you will go to everyone I send you to and speak whatever I tell you. (1:7)

This is the classic image of Jeremiah from the Sistine Chapel -- a man of sorrow and turmoil.


The Impossible Task

We've all been in a situation where we were told to do something that we thought impossible. Maybe it's a project at work with an impossible deadline. Maybe it's a public work where you knew that there was no way the people involved were going to go for it. Maybe you knew there wasn't enough money to get it done. Or enough manpower. Or enough support. Or maybe you just thought it was a bad idea in the first place.

How have you handled "the impossible task"? Did you try to change the boss's mind? Did you quit? Did you look for another solution? If you stuck to it, what sustained you through your doubts? And finally, how did it turn out?


This week, we begin the story of Jeremiah. God gave him a task that he thought impossible, and he complained quite a bit about it to God. He also stuck to it and threw himself into his calling (despite all of the terrible things that happened to him as a result).


Jeremiah's experience was not unique among the prophets, as we've learned from our studies of Isaiah and Ezekiel. And Hosea. And Elijah. And John the Baptist. But that doesn't always help when you're the one in the wringer. We're going to be challenged by Jeremiah's life. And we're going to be forced to ask ourselves what we expect God to do for us when we say that we will follow Him anywhere. In that respect, this is a powerful follow-up to our six-month study of the Gospel of John.


The AutoDocumentary of Your Life

I love documentaries, and I love biographies. I'm always amazed when a talented scholar digs into someone life story and turns it into a coherent narrative that anyone can pick up and enjoy. Go to ten "best biographies" lists, and you'll get ten totally different lists (that's how you know a field is doing well).


In our image-obsessed world, more and more celebrities want to control their own narrative. More than an autobiography, I think of what they do as autodocumentaries (no, that's not a word). It has interviews, letters, home videos, press releases, clips from live events, etc. When those celebrities work with talented writers and producers, you get something universally lauded, like Michael Jordan's "The Last Dance". When those celebrities work with yes-men, you get something less lauded, like "Winning Time" about the Lakers.


I think this makes for an interesting topic set:

  • If you were to write and produce your autodocumentary, what would you want in it? What are some "highlights" from your life that you would want to have memorialized? What ideas and contributions would you want recorded?

  • Not now, take a step back -- if someone else were to produce a biographical docuseries about you (I know, who would want to do that?), what would they put in it? What are things that, from the outside, someone would find "noteworthy"?

And of course the question is how to bridge that gap. How would you live your life such that others see in you what you hope they see in you?


We're about to spend a quarter in one of the most interesting such productions in the entire Bible. The Book of Jeremiah is part-sermon, part-biography, part-social commentary, part-history. The most common word used to describe it is an anthology. The closest parallel we have is probably Isaiah, but there's really nothing in the Bible quite like it. We learn quite a bit about what Jeremiah thought, and we also learn what others thought of Jeremiah. There are plenty of skeptics who claim that little in this book is trustworthy, but they're wrong. This is an incredible, challenging book, and we're going to be better Christians for having studied it.


This Week's Big Idea: An Introduction to Jeremiah

Let's start with the Bible Project video:

We're going to learn a lot about the man Jeremiah as we go, but here's a summary:

  • Jeremiah served as God's prophet from 627 BC (early in good King Josiah's reign) until 585 BC (after the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians).

  • He came from a priestly family and was well-trained in the Old Testament. God forbid him to marry or have a family due to the nature of his calling.

  • He served under Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, Zedekiah, and Gedaliah (the later "kings" served at the whims of the overlords).

  • He was at odds with just about everyone -- the kings, the priests, the officials, contemporary false prophets, and Judah's enemies.

  • He was preeminently hated for his counsel that surrender to the Babylonians was the only way the Jews (and Jerusalem) could be saved.

  • He was not happy with the life God called him to, and he regularly complained to God about this; but he also worshiped and trusted God.

One of the parallels between Isaiah and Jeremiah is the world-altering events that happened around them. Isaiah prophesied in the lead-up to the fall of Israel, warning the people that the time to repent was running out. The balance of power was shifting in the region, and the Jews were going to be sucked into that vacuum.


This is the same situation Jeremiah faced, except this time it was the southern kingdom -- Judah -- that was about to be swept up in the changing world.


Geopolitics:

  • Assyria was the regional superpower that had conquered Israel 100 years before Jeremiah's calling. They had expanded their empire beyond what they were able to control, and starting in 665 BC with the Egyptians, the Babylonians, Medes, Lydians, and others began large-scale rebellions. This slowly drained Assyria of its ability to police its empire.

  • Josiah came to power in 640 BC (Jeremiah was called to be a prophet in 627 BC), and he found a copy of the law in 622 BC (see 2 Kings 22). At this same time, Babylon had launched a major revolt against Assyria, so there was no one to interfere with Josiah's campaign to renew the Jewish religion. Josiah is the only king Jeremiah did not prophesy to directly -- likely because Josiah was plodding down the right path.

  • Egypt was the first to realize that an ascendant Babylon was actually more dangerous than Assyria, so they marched through Israel in 609 to help Assyria stop the Babylonian advance. Josiah foolishly tried to interfere (see 2 Kings 23) and was annihilated. Egypt installed their own "king" over Judah (Jehoiakim), and all of Josiah's reforms were immediately discarded. This is when Jeremiah starts to get vocal.

  • In 605 BC, Babylon (Nebuchadnezzar) launched their war against Egypt. King Jehoiakim initially acquiesced to Babylon but eventually joined the Egyptians in fighting Babylon. Terrible idea. Babylon brushed them aside like gnats, and Nebuchadnezzar installed his own king (Zedekiah) in 598 BC.

  • Enough Jews were anti-Babylon that they eventually revolted in 589 BC when other provinces had Babylon's attention elsewhere. Not so fast. Babylon crushed the other rebels and came and in short order demolished Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar put out Zedekiah's eyes and appointed Gedaliah to be his regional "governor".

  • A small group of Jewish zealots later assassinated Gedaliah and forcibly took Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch to Egypt, which is the last thing we hear about Jeremiah. The book reports a few Jewish-related incidents from after that time.


We covered a little bit about this era when we introduced Ezekiel:

When Ezekiel started prophesying to the exiles in Babylon, Jeremiah was still prophesying to the surviving Jews in Jerusalem.


All of those things happened while Jeremiah served as God's prophet.


Now let's get to one of the more confusing parts of Jeremiah for modern readers.


Warning: Jeremiah is NOT chronological.

I hope to have more time in future weeks to dive into this. No chance of that this week. If you really, really want to know more about this topic, here's a link to a free article from an old Evangelical Theological Society journal that will scrunch your brain:

Here's that author's attempt to put Jeremiah into chronological order:


King 1: Josiah (640-609 BC)

  • 1:1-6:30 -- 626 BC

  • 7:1-10:25 -- between 626-621 BC

  • 11:1-8 -- 621 BC

  • 11:9-20:18 -- between 620-608 BC

King 2: Jehoiakim (609-598 BC)

  • 22:1-19, 26:1-24 -- 608 BC

  • 36:1-8, 25:1-38, 46:1-51:64, 45:1-5, 36:9-22, 35:1-19 -- 604 BC

  • 35:1-19 -- 600 BC

King 3: Jehoiachin (598-598 BC)

  • 22:20-30, 13:18-27

King 4: Zedekiah (597-586)

  • 23:1-24:10, 29:1-31:40, 49:34-39 -- 597 BC

  • 27:1-28:17, 51:59-64 -- 593 BC

  • 34:1-10, 21:1-14, 34:11-22, 37:1-21 -- 588 BC

  • 32:1-33:26 -- 587 BC

  • 38:1-39:18 -- 586 BC

Epilogue (post-586 BC)

  • 40:1-44:30 -- 586 BC

  • chapter 52 -- much later


Takeaways: At this moment, we're not too worried about if that author is 100% correct. The point is that the present form of Jeremiah isn't chronological, and we have to keep that in mind as we read it. Why is it like this? Well, chapter 36 gives us a hint. Jeremiah had a scribe named Baruch who wrote down all of his messages. The wicked king (Jehoiakim) burned that scroll, so Baruch wrote another edition, this time with some additional sermons. This has led many trustworthy scholars to believe that Jeremiah and his students continued work on this book throughout Jeremiah's life (and at least one addition was made after Jeremiah's death). Why did they put it in the order they did? That's the debate. And that's why you will see a different outline for the book in every study guide you might find.


Example Outline #1:

  1. The Call of Jeremiah (1:1-19)

  2. Crime and Punishment of Jerusalem (2:1-6:30)

  3. False Religion and a Deluded People (7:1-10:25)

  4. The Broken Covenant and Its Consequences (11:1-15:21)

  5. Opposition to Jeremiah (16:1-29:32)

  6. Restoration and a New Covenant (30:1-33:26)

  7. Jehoiakim and Zedekiah (34:1-39:18)

  8. Jerusalem's Destruction (40:1-45:5)

  9. Messages against the Nations (46:1-51:64)

  10. The Aftermath (52:1-34)

Example Outline #2:

  1. Jeremiah's Call (1:1-19)

  2. Jeremiah and His People (2:1-24:10)

  3. Jeremiah and the Nations (25:1-51:64)

  4. Appendix (52:1-34)

Example Outline #3 (in our study guide):

  1. Jeremiah's Call (1:1-19)

  2. Jeremiah Calls for Repentance (2:1-25:38)

  3. Jeremiah Stands Firm (26:1-36:32)

  4. Jeremiah Foresees Destruction (37:1-45:5)

  5. Prophecies against the Nations (46:1-51:64)

  6. Epilogue (52:1-34)

Those are each trustworthy, conservative sources. They don't even agree on the major topic breaks!


So, what do we do with this? As you know, I'm a huge fan of outlines. I believe that a good outline of a book can help us understand it greatly. Jeremiah is a rare exception to my belief in outlines. Outlines of Jeremiah don't help us understand "what" Jeremiah was saying or what was happening. We won't need help understanding that. Those outlines can only help us try to understand "why" the editor chose the order he did. That's interesting and helpful, but it won't change the meaning of the stories and sermons we have in this book.


The Book of Jeremiah is an anthology of sermons, events in Jeremiah's life, and events in Jerusalem. They tell us the story of what happened in the last years of Jerusalem. (And my guess is that if we lived through those years, we would probably understand the arrangement of this book just fine.)

 

Part 1: Created (Jeremiah 1:4-10)

4 The word of the Lord came to me:
5 I chose you before I formed you in the womb; I set you apart before you were born. I appointed you a prophet to the nations.
6 But I protested, “Oh no, Lord God! Look, I don’t know how to speak since I am only a youth.” 7 Then the Lord said to me:
Do not say, “I am only a youth,” for you will go to everyone I send you to and speak whatever I tell you. 8 Do not be afraid of anyone, for I will be with you to rescue you. This is the Lord’s declaration.
9 Then the Lord reached out his hand, touched my mouth, and told me:
I have now filled your mouth with my words. 10 See, I have appointed you today over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and demolish, to build and plant.

Verses 1-3 tell us that Jeremiah's dad was a priest and that he served starting during the reign of Josiah and continuing through Zedekiah. They don't mention Jehoahaz or Jehoiachin, both of whom served for only a few months. They also don't mention the governor Gedaliah, leading some scholars to believe that those events were added in a later edition.


Here's a summary of the political and religious situation of Judah during Jeremiah's life:

  • There were three major powers surrounding Jerusalem: Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon. Assyria's decline enabled good king Josiah to enact necessary religious and societal reforms in Jerusalem, but he was killed when he tried to intervene in the larger struggle between Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon. With his death, his reforms also died, and he was succeeded by puppet kings -- appointed first by Egypt then by Babylon -- who had no interest in religion and little credibility among the people. Jeremiah was sent to warn these terrible leaders that Jerusalem would be destroyed if they didn't repent of their wicked ways. In addition, Jeremiah had to navigate the factions of Jews who were for/against Egypt, for/against Babylon, for/against such-and-such king, for/against God. Truly a miserable time.


God called Jeremiah during the "good times". Assyria was completely distracted with Babylon. In just a few years, Josiah was going to find a copy of the law and begin to enact reforms. It would be a chance for Jeremiah to "get comfortable" with his calling before things got rocky.


I have heard that this isn't so much a "call" as a "draft". Jeremiah couldn't really refuse this call because it is what God created him for. One, this is an incredibly powerful verse in support the conviction that life begins at conception. But two, this is a reminder to us that God does not look at us as who we are now but as who we are becoming. Jeremiah was limited to thinking about his present reality -- he was a young man who had no experience with public speaking, let alone public confrontation.


God makes two things clear to Jeremiah:

  • Jeremiah's message is from God, not from him.

  • Jeremiah would grow into the messenger he wanted to be.

I really like the way Lifeway worded their discussion questions:

What excuses have you made not to obey God? According to God's declaration to Jeremiah in these verses, why are those excuses irrelevant?

Many scholars attempt to understand the structure of the Book of Jeremiah by verse 10:

10 See, I have appointed you today over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and demolish, to build and plant.

Judgement and destruction. Hope and future rebuilding. Those are the key themes to this book.


God explains this a little more in chapter 18:

7 At one moment I might announce concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will uproot, tear down, and destroy it. 8 However, if that nation about which I have made the announcement turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the disaster I had planned to do to it. 9 At another time I might announce concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it. 10 However, if it does what is evil in my sight by not listening to me, I will relent concerning the good I had said I would do to it.

And again in chapter 31:

27 “Look, the days are coming”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of people and the seed of animals. 28 Just as I watched over them to uproot and to tear them down, to demolish and to destroy, and to cause disaster, so will I watch over them to build and to plant them”—this is the Lord’s declaration.

I find those verses very helpful in understanding 1:10. People's free choices always factor into God's actions. And God is the one doing the acting, not Jeremiah.


But Jeremiah doesn't get to pick and choose his field of service. He can't just give the happy messages to the people he likes. He also has to give the messages of judgment to the people who hate him. It's a really great reminder for us (especially those who are in ministry leadership) -- our commitment to God must be as to a marriage ("in sickness and in health" "for better or for worse" "for richer or for poorer"), right? Jeremiah would learn this lesson very well. Do we need to learn it, too?

 

Part 2: Watched (Jeremiah 1:11-16)

11 Then the word of the Lord came to me, asking, “What do you see, Jeremiah?” I replied, “I see a branch of an almond tree.” 12 The Lord said to me, “You have seen correctly, for I watch over my word to accomplish it.”
13 Again the word of the Lord came to me asking, “What do you see?” And I replied, “I see a boiling pot, its lip tilted from the north to the south.” 14 Then the Lord said to me, “Disaster will be poured out from the north on all who live in the land. 15 Indeed, I am about to summon all the clans and kingdoms of the north.”
This is the Lord’s declaration: They will come, and each king will set up his throne at the entrance to Jerusalem’s gates. They will attack all her surrounding walls and all the other cities of Judah.
16 “I will pronounce my judgments against them for all the evil they did when they abandoned me to burn incense to other gods and to worship the works of their own hands.

Here, we get a taste of what God has in store for Jeremiah. One, this is the dominant event in the book -- the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of her enemies. Two, this is the way that God will communicate with Jeremiah -- images and visions and plays on words. Sometimes we will understand that as readers; sometimes we will miss it.


The almond tree was among the earliest to blossom and served as a harbinger of spring. The Hebrew word for almond tree (shaqed) is identical with the Hebrew word for watcher (shoqed). God has said that these things will happen, and they will happen as surely as winter passes to spring.


The follow-up vision explains how God will bring this about: disaster from the north, like boiling water being poured from giant cauldron. When Babylon came and went from Judea, they did so from the north. The direct route from Jerusalem to Babylon was basically impassable, so they would follow the rivers.


Note: this was not giving Jeremiah any secret information. Assyria came from the north. Syria (Damascus) was immediately north of Judea. If anybody other that Egypt or Philistia attacked Jerusalem, it would be from the north.

And that's really God's point -- "everybody" north of them would attack. And that seems to be the case; Babylon had a bunch of their vassal nations send armies against Judea. This opened the door for other neighbors (like Ammon and Moab) to take advantage of Jerusalem's weakness (see 2 Kings 24). The image God uses in verse 15 is of an attack so overwhelming that the enemy kings set their thrones directly in front of the city gates, knowing that the Jews can't do anything against them.


Verse 16 finally identifies the cause: abandoning God for false gods.


How many times have we covered this before?


How many times has this not been the warning from the prophets!


What is idolatry?


An idol is a representation of something considered divine; idolatry is giving worth (worship) to that idol. We often pick on low-hanging fruit here -- like worshiping the sun in hopes that it won't make things too hot or too cold (rather than worshiping the God who created the sun). We've learned that a tendency to put our trust in money or doctors rather than God is also idolatry. Based on the messages of the prophets above, we learned that putting ourselves above God's law is a way of putting ourselves above God, which is also an idolatry.


The most devastating commentary God makes against the folly of idol-worship comes in Isaiah 44; I strongly encourage you to read it. Should we worship God or something of our own creation?

19 “I burned half of it in the fire, I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted meat and ate. Should I make something detestable with the rest of it? Should I bow down to a block of wood?”

God said to Jeremiah that He would also bring judgment against idol-worship. He said the same thing to Moses ("I am a jealous God"). In fact, He said this to all of His servants. It's just as true today. Every prophet we've studied, we've asked ourselves to be on the lookout for how we might fall into those same tendencies today. In what ways do we and the people around us do the types of things that God will judge the Jews for?

 

Part 3: Charged (Jeremiah 1:17-19)

17 “Now, get ready. Stand up and tell them everything that I command you. Do not be intimidated by them or I will cause you to cower before them. 18 Today, I am the one who has made you a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls against the whole land—against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the population. 19 They will fight against you but never prevail over you, since I am with you to rescue you.”
This is the Lord’s declaration.

To Jeremiah, this calling must have been double-edged. Yes, on the one hand it meant that God was with him (and that's all that really mattered). But on the other hand, it meant that he would be going against quite literally everybody -- from his kings to his neighbors. That must have been exhausting to consider.


As you've probably heard, people on the internet like to turn everything into a parody. There used to be a serious philosophical debate about the idea of "irresistible force vs. an immovable object". Now we have:

[Fair warning: many of those memes are funny and clever; more are inappropriate and offensive. And some just don't make any sense at all. Always beware the internet.]


Jokes aside, God was telling Jeremiah that he would be the "immovable object". He would be the ultimate fortified city, with walls made out of metal (not stone, which can crumble). But he would not be stationary -- he would travel wherever God sent him, and he would be just as immovable wherever he was.


Here's the setup question for the rest of the book (and really the rest of Jeremiah's life): why would God "beef up" Jeremiah's "defenses" to such an extreme?


This is the nutshell of Jeremiah's experience: the people could not disregard God without consequence, and no amount of confrontation with God's messenger would change that.


This setup to the rest of the book is a time for us to evaluate our own calling in life. Every Christian has a "calling" from God (and it's not always to be a persecuted prophet like Jeremiah!) -- how aware are you of your calling? How actively are you pursuing your calling?


And if you don't know what your calling is, who can you talk to about that?

 

Closing Thoughts: Expectations vs. Reality in God's Calling

You may not have thought about this very much, but I certainly have. I have known a lot of seminary students, pastors-in-training, and missionaries-in-training. Some of them had a (how do I say this?) *rosy* picture of what they thought God had called them to. I wondered how they would handle their first rough patch of ministry.


I think I've previously linked this recent Barna survey indicating that 42% of pastors have seriously considered quitting full-time ministry in the past year. Follow-up research has indicated that only 1-3% of pastors actually leave full-time ministry (other than for retirement) each year. So, what happens? They hit a rough patch, and it makes them question their call:

I imagine that Jeremiah felt every one of those challenges to the nth degree. What sustained him? His call (which is what we studied this week).


And that's what has to sustain pastors/missionaries/church planters as well. If you have acquaintances struggling with thoughts of quitting their ministry, encourage them to focus on their call. What did God call them to do? Are they doing it?

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