Was Jeremiah a Bullfrog?
Jeremiah 1:1-10 (NRSV)
“The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the LORD came in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. It came also in the days of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of King Zedekiah son of Josiah of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month. 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! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”[i]
God said to the young prophet, “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.” Invariably wherever young people gather, a youth minister or lay leader will recite these verses, urging young people to respond to God’s words. Though the text speaks specifically to Jeremiah, many modern faith leaders imply that God has a specific and preordained plan for all people, especially youth.
While this provides scriptural resource for compelling all generations to a life of faith and duty, the actual words, taken in their historical and cultural context, may apply only to the young son of a priest in the tribe of Benjamin. Like Mary of Nazareth, a young boy is plucked from obscurity to become God’s voice to the people of Judah. It first establishes the boy’s parental lineage and his position in the community. Jeremiah appears to be a son of a priest and a member of the tribe of Benjamin; “The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin”. These credentials are established to demonstrate that Jeremiah is a legitimate Son of Abraham, thus entitled to receive God’s message.
His place in the historical timeline needed to be recognized as well. The text indicates that Jeremiah’s life of prophecy spanned three Judean kings, “ to whom the word of the LORD came in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. It came also in the days of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of King Zedekiah son of Josiah of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month”.
The text does not indicate when they were written, however the opening phrase “The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah,” implies that either Jeremiah himself wrote them or someone recorded the prophet’s words directly. It is likely that they were written during Jeremiah’s lifetime and by the prophet himself. Regardless of when or who wrote the text, establishing Jeremiah’s lineage and historical context was prerequisite in Hebraic literature.
For many Christians these verses indicate that God has a plan for all people even before we are born. It reinforces the sovereignty and omnipotence of God’s canon and has become a foundation for a personal commitment because God has “chosen” them to speak. For contemporary Christians, the meaning of the scriptures goes beyond the historical time and place and bestows theological merit to God’s control in the life of each person, not just a boy from Judah.
It is important to remember that these words were written for a different time and a different culture. The original writer may not have been advocating the inclusion of all people in God’s choice as prophets. Instead the purpose of these verses was to establish the uniqueness of Jeremiah and how God chooses specific individuals to fulfill his plans. The nearly 2600 years between Jeremiah and the present day may alter the way we interpret and apply these scriptures. Still we should be mindful of what their meaning was to the people in ancient Judah. We are challenged to understand the theological implications during the historical period in which Jeremiah lived and in our own time as well.
Verse four seems innocuous by simply stating that “Now the word of the LORD came to me…” Its failure to explain why God choose to speak to Jeremiah at this time creates an ambivalence concerning the circumstances in which God chose to reveal the young man’s calling. Did Jeremiah seek God out or do something which indicated he was ready to receive his predestined mandate? Was the young man plagued by doubt or placed in circumstances which drew him toward or away from God? Perhaps the reason is not important or, like Grace, God bestows prophecy on whomever he chooses and no explanation is required. Still Abraham, Noah, Moses, King Saul, David and Paul were all given a background or reason for being selected. The circumstances may not be pertinent; however, the lack of any qualification or personal struggle concerning the young prophet seems incongruous with biblical narrative.
What is consistent with biblical narrative is Jeremiah’s reluctance to accept God’s calling. “I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” We do not know from this scripture how old Jeremiah is. The New King James and NIV Bibles refers to him as “youth” suggesting someone older than a “boy”. He may have been less than 13 and certainly did not feel worthy of serving Yahweh. His youthfulness reinforces the idea of God taking control and empowering men, even a young boy, to do his will. ” But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” God makes it clear that the age or status of Jeremiah is not important. The ability to speak will come from God and Jeremiah shall be a mouthpiece for God. It also reaffirms God’s faithfulness to the boy by promising to protect and deliver him. This covenant of fidelity is a bedrock tenet of the Jewish faith.
When I began my ministry, I kept a copy of Jeremiah 1:9 taped to my pulpits; “Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.” It reminded me that I was speaking for God and not myself. It centered me on my responsibility to teach God’s message and not my own. Like Jeremiah I am at ease that God will provide the words I need to speak.
Reassured that he would not lack for words, Jeremiah was told there were greater plans for him. “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” His intention was for Jeremiah to be more than a spokesperson. God would teach the boy to become a prophet and a leader to his people. And through Jeremiah God would both destroy and rebuild the nations.
It is important to take ancient text and make them relevant in today’s world. The challenge is whether the passing of time and changing culture has led us to a clearer understanding of the scriptures or muddled their true and original intents. Though the analysis can be made that these scriptures indicate an anointing or calling of all Christians to be disciples, it is not the core intention of this narrative. An initial understanding of these verses within their historical and cultural context indicates God had empowered a single person to become a prophet for the engagement of a specific task. None of my commentaries or reference sources has indicated otherwise.
Can we assume from these scriptures that God calls all of us to become “a prophet to the nations”? Citing God’s work through the youthful prophet verifies that God will do the same for young Christians as well. The New Testament confirms that through Christ all people are called to service and discipleship. Is young Jeremiah an illustration of that service, encouraging young and old to be obedient to God’s call?
A youth pastor, reciting these words at a youth rally, is not wrong to call young people into God’s service. Discipleship is a core tenet of our faith. I am not wrong when I open my mind and heart to sharing God’s words instead of my own. Obedience to God’s words also lies at the heart of our discipleship. It is natural that we choose to interpret these scriptures by the conditions in which we live today. Sometimes we miss the core meaning which God declared to the people two and a half millenniums ago.
God did choose Jeremiah when he was still an embryo in the womb and perhaps we are all chosen then. God did reassure Jeremiah that he had a purpose for his life and we can hope he has a purpose for all our lives. God called the boy to fulfill that purpose and we are called today to do the same if we heed the will of God. Many sermons can be and have been spoken on these concepts.
It is in verse 10 that the heart of these scriptures and the entirety of Jeremiah’s prophetic life is revealed. “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” This was the task God wanted Jeremiah to achieve and for what God had prepared him to do. It was a task which God would accomplish by exiling his people to Babylon. Jeremiah would forewarn and justify God’s deeds, fulfilling the task of pulling down and building up.
While we view them as historical, almost mythical actions, occurring 2600 years ago, they were real issues which required active intervention. We should never forget that whether in the past or the present, God works in real time. He took action in ancient Judah and he is active in our 21st century. Like Jeremiah we are reluctant to follow God’s instruction often making excuses. Yet these scriptures should remind us not that we have been appointed for special ministry by God, but that through us, God will accomplish the work of fulfilling the Kingdom.
[i] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Location 34880). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.