Week of January 15, 2017
The Point: Before you were born, God designed you with great value.
A Prophet to the Nations: Jeremiah 1:4-10.
 Now the word of the LORD came to me, saying,  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”  Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.”  But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak.  Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the LORD.”  Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the LORD said to me, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.  See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” [ESV]
 “The word of the Lord came to me, saying essentially corresponds to the phrase in verse 2, and makes the claim that the message and activity about to be described did not originate with Jeremiah, but was the result of specific divine communication. Jeremiah did not set himself up as a prophet, as if it were a career option he might or might not follow. It was a matter of divine selection that was suddenly, intrusively, made known to him. We are limited in what we can say about the mode of divine communication, but it is clear that certain interpretations can be ruled out, such as that Jeremiah personally convinced himself that this was to be his vocation in life. No amount of psychologizing can do justice to what Jeremiah here claims.
 In the first part of the verse God reveals to the prophet that his call was no sudden divine decision, but a matter that had long been planned. Indeed God was already active in his life, though he had not been aware of it. This was Jeremiah’s destiny, and there could be no escaping it. Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Formed describes the work of a craftsman, particularly a potter. It was used for the Lord’s creative work in Genesis 2:7. Not only do we have here the assertion that the Lord is the sovereign controller and originator of all life, even life before birth, but that He has also determined what destiny should be for each [Ps. 139:13-16]. That is true in measure of everyone, but it was especially true of Jeremiah [44:2,24; 49:5]. Such knowledge was given beforehand of Samson [Judges 13:3] and also of John the Baptist [Luke 1:13-17]. Though other prophets such as Moses and Samuel were divinely designated from birth, their call is not traced so far back. However, in Isaiah the Servant is formed from the womb [Isa. 44:2,24; 49:5] and called from the womb [49:1]. In Jeremiah’s case there had been the same divine superintendence of his life, preparing him for the task that would be assigned him, but Jeremiah was unaware of God’s special purpose in his life until his call in 627 BC. Knew here is used in its fuller Hebrew sense, which covers not merely factual information about someone, but approval, choice and personal commitment. From the very start of Jeremiah’s life God had sovereignly recognized him as His subject and His servant who would play an important part in the outworking of the divine purpose. Being made aware of his status in God’s sight provided Jeremiah with an encouraging and secure basis for compliance with what God would require him to do. Before you were born I consecrated you indicates that God had selected him for His own. Consecrated you is also used for the setting apart of the priests and everything connected with the worship of Israel. While the term indicated that people and items were for use in the worship of the sanctuary, the emphasis was not on personal holiness as such, but on being designated to perform a specific function in divine service. It was therefore sacrilege and rebellion for one set apart to turn to other pursuits. Ahead of Jeremiah were times of depression, of doubt and of despair. Right from the start, God was teaching him how he should look at his life. Rather than being overwhelmed by the pressures of the moment, his self-perception was to be that he was one shaped and appointed for his master’s use. Jeremiah’s commission is then expressed in words which refer to it as already an accomplished fact, or more probably as then sovereignly bestowed. I appointed you gives more specific details as to how God had set him apart in His own service. But Jeremiah’s calling was not just as a member of the people of God. It was specifically as a prophet. The Old Testament prophet was God’s spokesman, His messenger, divinely selected for the task of conveying to the Lord’s people the message which had been communicated to him by God. It is here, however, that there is a surprising aspect to Jeremiah’s call: he is denominated not just a prophet to Judah, but to the nations. Nations ordinarily refers to the heathen nations as distinct from Israel or Judah, though in the singular the word is occasionally employed of the chosen people also [e.g. in Gen. 12:2; Exod. 19:6]. But the main theme of Jeremiah’s ministry was the fate of his fellow countrymen in Judah. However, verse 10 sheds further light on the sense in which this expression is to be taken. It refers to more than the fact that in Jeremiah’s day the affairs of Judah were inextricably linked with those of surrounding nations, so that saying something about Judah’s future also meant saying something about the nations around her. As the prophecies against the nations show, what the Lord was permitting to happen in the world scene arose out of, and was determined by, what He was doing for His own people. His control over events ensured that His messenger had something to say of relevance to their destiny also. That this international dimension to his ministry was not unique to Jeremiah is clearly shown in 28:8 where Jeremiah talks about earlier prophets who prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms.
 Jeremiah was overwhelmed and dismayed by the task that he was called to. It is to underestimate the significance of the situation to suggest that this is a conventional refusal. Ah is a cry of bewilderment at being in God’s presence [Josh. 1:7; 6:22] and also consternation at the duty assigned to him [Josh. 7:7; Judg. 6:22; 11:35], because Jeremiah is aware of the tension between his own will and the implications of the divine pronouncement. A similar cry also appears in 4:10; 14:13; 32:17. However, it would be wrong to suggest that Jeremiah is refusing to comply with his mandate. He uses the term Lord God which acknowledges God’s rights as the sovereign ruler of all, and also as Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel. He does not seek to evade the task, but feeling his incompetence, he looks for a delay on the grounds of his age. I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth. Jeremiah’s reluctance to speak is not a matter of physical impediment but rather a genuine lack of skill in public speaking because of his youthfulness. Youth probably refers to someone in their teens. Public meetings in Anathoth would be no different from other assemblies and councils at that time. They looked to the aged to speak, and Jeremiah had as yet had no opportunity to acquire skills in public speaking and debate. And it was not just a matter of experience. He would not have easily received a hearing because no one would have taken a youth seriously if he did try to speak. So Jeremiah’s problems are not feigned: he foresees genuine difficulties in carrying out the task allotted to him. He felt the situation was one that was beyond him, and was perplexed because he did not know how to cope with it. No doubt there was also a genuine element of apprehension. The prophet as God’s spokesman had to be one able to present God’s case before the nation, and Jeremiah would have well known the reception accorded previous prophets of the Lord, such as Amos at Bethel [Amos 7:10-13] or even the great Elijah at the hands of Jezebel [1 Kings 19:2], and seemingly others whose innocent blood according to Jewish tradition had been shed in more recent times in the atrocities perpetrated in Manasseh’s reign [2 Kings 21:16]. Jeremiah’s response is also evidence that he did not seek the role assigned to him; so it was misunderstanding the situation to accuse him of enjoying bringing words of woe [17:16]. He was acting under divine constraint [1 Cor. 9:16].
 The Lord then spoke to reassure Jeremiah. God does not dispute the accuracy of Jeremiah’s claims about his age and inexperience. He disputes their relevance: Do not say, ‘I am only a youth.’ Since the Lord had selected Jeremiah from before his birth, He would be the one to provide him with what he needed. Also, there was no lack of clarity about the instructions he was being given. The next clause begins with the Hebrew particle for which generally introduces a reason. When it is found, as here, after a negative, it can bear the sense ‘but rather’, and so introduce the alternative scenario that the Lord envisages. Instead to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. The emphasis is not on the limitation of Jeremiah’s commission, as if he were not to go to those he had not been commanded to, though no doubt that was true. Rather it is on the completeness of the obedience that is expected – everyone and everything, without exception. Because that is his divine commission, he has no option or discretion in the matter: the choice of recipients was not his, nor was the message to be delivered to them. So Jeremiah need not worry about having to work out what he was to say. He was a commissioned messenger whom the Lord had sent. Send plays an important part in the prophet’s perception of his task [23:21,32; 28:15], as does go in terms of his fulfilment of that commission. A prophet who is not sent by the one he claims to represent is necessarily a fraud and an impostor [23:21]. There is a further element to the situation. The Lord uses words already employed in Deuteronomy 18:18, he shall speak to them all that I command him, where they describe the prophet like Moses whom God promises He will raise up. By using words with which Jeremiah was familiar from Scripture, God calls on him to see his life’s work as following in the footsteps of those who had gone before. The prior revelation gives him a frame of reference within which he can begin to understand his own experience and encounter with God.
 Jeremiah need not have been overly prone to timidity, but his call at such a young age and in the circumstances of his day obviously led to a fearfulness that was boosted by a sense of personal weakness and inadequacy. The Lord next acts to counter this, but not by rewording His orders or reshaping the response Jeremiah would encounter. Do not be afraid of them. Them refers to those to whom Jeremiah is sent in the previous verse. He is not to let their opposition get through to him and undermine his nerve. God helps him in this by giving him a twofold promise. The first reason Jeremiah is given for overcoming his fear is, for I am with you. the promise of the special divine protecting presence was often given to God’s servants in these words. Such assured presence and support is found in other call narratives also [Judg. 6:16; Exod. 3:12; Ezek. 3:2], and in combination with deliverance in Deuteronomy 20:1; 31:8; Isaiah 41:10. This is in fact the second reason why Jeremiah could banish his fears: God promises that He will deliver you. Jeremiah was not being promised immunity from difficulties, but there was a measure of reassurance for the trying days ahead. The promise of presence and rescue recalled what God had done for His people in former days at the time of the Exodus [Exod. 3:8; 18:10], and what was related by David as his own experience in later days [Pss. 18:17,19; 22:21; 143:9]. So whatever the future held in store for him, Jeremiah is being assured that his life will be preserved from his enemies, as in fact it was. Declares the Lord occurs 168 times in the book, at the middle or end of divine sayings, and functioning somewhat like a signature to authenticate the message that has just been given by naming its originator. As this message comes from the Lord, the phrase embodies the claim that it is accurate and authoritative. The same note of authority is found in the introductory phrase, Thus says the Lord, which points away from the messenger who is merely the mouthpiece of the one who had commissioned him to deliver it.
 Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth. The hand is the member of action and power. It also occurs in a number of passages which speak of the way in which the Lord communicated His message to the prophets [15:17; Isa. 8:11; 2 Kings 3:15; and frequently in Ezek. 1:3; 3:13,22; 8:1; 37:1]. It is a sovereign action which accompanies divine bestowal of blessing. The significance of this action is explained by the divine word. The Lord said to me, ‘Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.’ Because the Lord has determined that it shall be, it is treated as already certain (have put). The prophet now has a message to relay, not one of his own devising, but one divinely provided [2 Peter 1:21]. Again, Jeremiah is reminded of Deuteronomy 18:18 where the words I will put my words in his mouth are also to be found with the same verb but in a future construction.
 In See, I have set you this day the combination of the perfect verb and this day shows that here again we have an instance of the use of a past tense verb to indicate future action that is considered as having already taken place. The verb set refers to the action of a superior with respect to an inferior, and here it conveys the idea that Jeremiah has been divinely appointed to an office and invested with all the authority associated with it. As far as God is concerned, Jeremiah is a man under orders to whom authority has been delegated. This helps explain the power of the prophetic word. The power of the prophetic word is not in the word per se; it arises from the fact that it is the word of the vice-gerent who has been divinely appointed; and indeed it is only as that word faithfully reflects the determination of the heavenly council that it is effective. The power of the word inheres in its divine originator. However, the sphere of the prophet’s authority is wider than might have been expected. It is over nations and over kingdoms. The Lord’s dominion knows no bounds [10:6-7,10,12-16; 32:17], and so He is in a position to delegate to others international responsibilities. Jeremiah has a message to deliver that impacts on the destiny not only of Judah but also of neighboring nations. The prophet speaks for God, and as he utters His words, so the divine purpose is put into execution. The prophet’s task is presented in terms that go beyond a messenger merely announcing a decree, to a governor given effective authority by God to implement His decrees throughout the territories under his sway. The international aspect of Jeremiah’s ministry was no new thing. Previous prophets had proclaimed messages regarding the conduct of surrounding nations. Furthermore, when Jeremiah addresses Hananiah, he acknowledges this international aspect of previous prophetic ministries. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms [28:8]. The divine rule, and Jeremiah’s administration of it, are described in six terms: four of which are negative [1-4], and two positive [5-6]; three of which are from an agricultural background [1,3,6] and three from a building one [2,4,5], though to destroy is used in a variety of contexts. (1) to pluck up and (2) to break down, (3) to destroy and (4) to overthrow, (5) to build and (6) to plant. The negative terms precede the positive because of the order in which Jeremiah’s ministry as regards Judah would be carried out: the overgrown field of the nation will first have to be cleared of thorns and weeds before true crops can be planted; the unsteady structures of the land would have to be demolished to make room for future construction. That there are four negative terms and two positive may well reflect the balance of Jeremiah’s ministry – more demolition work was needed than reconstruction. There is probably also here the tension between expressions of condemnation and expressions of praise that is needed in any ministry that would reflect the balance of God’s word. The words are repeated in a number of forms throughout the book and evidently formed a theme round which Jeremiah perceived his ministry to center [12:14-17; 18:7-9; 24:6; 31:28,40; 42:10; 45:4]. The impact of this section is not confined just to those who are called to the public ministry of God’s word. At Pentecost the day dawned when all the Lord’s people are prophets, as Moses desired [Num. 11:29]. Still we are not at the same level as Jeremiah, with the same immediacy of divine revelation. Nonetheless the completed canon of Scripture provides us with a message of utmost significance, of divine origin and of international relevance.” [Mackay, pp. 93-104].
Questions for Discussion:
- When the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, what four actions does God tell Jeremiah He has done? What is the meaning and significance of these four verbs? Note each of these verbs are in the past tense indicating that God’s activity took place before Jeremiah’s birth. What do we learn about God from verse 5?
- Analyze the conversation between God and Jeremiah concerning God’s call to Jeremiah to be His prophet to the nations [6-8]. What was Jeremiah’s concern? How did God respond? Note God gives two negative commands, then God gives three positive statements (for). What does God promise Jeremiah? Note, that through these promises, God provides Jeremiah with just what he needs in order to fulfill his calling as a prophet.
- How does verse 10 describe God’s use of Jeremiah to accomplish His divine rule over all nations? What six terms are used? What is the significance that four of the terms are negative and two are positive? Why do the positive terms come last? Do you see God still working like this in our world today? What kingdom is God building and planting today?
- Although we may not be called to be a prophet like Jeremiah, every believer is called to speak God’s Word in a pagan world. What guidance, support, encouragement can you derive from this passage that will enable you to be faithful to your calling? Is God’s activity in verse 5 towards Jeremiah also true concerning you? Can we rely upon God’s promises to Jeremiah in verses 7-8 that He will send … command … deliver as being also true for us? Recognize, as Jeremiah did, that it is only by means of God’s promises that you will be enabled to fulfill God’s calling in your life.
Jeremiah, vol. 1, John Mackay, Mentor.
Jeremiah & Lamentations, Philip Ryken, Crossway.
The Book of Jeremiah, J. A. Thompson, NICOT, Eerdmans.