I have been struggling to find my purpose in life. I think it has something to do with being a young MA graduate, recently relocated to a strange new town, overwhelmed by the task of finding a job in a much larger pond.
The struggle has impacted my devotions. I needed to read something reassuring that still related to my present state of chaos and uncertainty. So I turned to Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, known best for his youth and for his heart-breaking anguish over the coming destruction of his people. “For I know the plans I have for you. . .” Haven’t we all learned that verse, and perhaps repeated it quietly to ourselves in times of doubt? “. . .plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”
Jeremiah is certainly a book of both reassurance and chaos. In “The Quest for the Structure of the Book of Jeremiah,” S. Jonathan Murphy notes that the book is full of dichotomies. It is a book of “judgment and promised hope, destruction and restoration, cursing and blessing.”[i] Just what I need, right?
The book begins with a brief historical introduction in Jeremiah 1:1-3, situating Jeremiah’s ministry around the time of Josiah’s reforms (2 Kings 22-23), Jehoiakim’s rebellion (2 Kings 23:36-24:6), and Judah’s captivity (2 Kings 25).
Then comes what scholars refer to as a “call narrative” in verses 4-10.[ii] It’s a literary formula common in the divine commissioning of prophets such as Moses and Ezekiel. It begins so beautifully: “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” (1:5, ESV). What a purpose! I wish God would speak to me like that!
But Jeremiah is not so sure. I don’t know how to speak, he says, I am young. God has heard this before. Moses tried the same line, “I am not eloquent . . . but am slow of speech and of tongue” (Ex 4:10). God responds with a command and a promise: “Do not say, ‘ I am only a youth;’ for to all 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” (1:7-8).
Then God touches Jeremiah’s mouth, puts words in, and says, “See, I have set you this day over nations and kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10). What a strange task. I have reassessed my desire for God to speak to me like this.
In the two visions and the explanation that follows, God illustrates what He means by setting Jeremiah as a divine agent over “nations and over kingdoms.” The city of Jerusalem will be attacked, God tells Jeremiah. All the “tribes of the kingdoms of the north” will set up camp around Jerusalem, “against all its walls . . .against all the cities of Judah” (1:15). God Himself will declare judgments against them, “for all their evil in forsaking me” (1:16). Against. It appears over and over again. The peoples of the north against Judah. God against Judah. It is clear that Judah will not last long.
How will Jeremiah survive? If Jerusalem, a city, isn’t safe, if the nation of Judah is doomed, how can one man protect himself, especially while making dire proclamations about Judah’s future? I can’t help feeling that this, in some ways, relates very much to the present. As the recent incidents in Paris, Brussels, Orlando, and New York City have shown, no city is safe. No nation is safe. How can the individual find protection?
“But you,” God commanded Jeremiah, “dress yourself for work; arise and say to them everything that I command you. Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them. And I, behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you, but they will not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the Lord, to deliver you” (1:17-19).
A fortified city. Jeremiah is more impenetrable than Jerusalem itself. Jerusalem will be besieged, broken down, torn apart, gutted. Jerusalem, a city with walls and towers, will be able to do nothing against the onslaught of the army that is to come. Rejecting God, they rejected the Presence that could protect them. But Jeremiah, though he is just one individual, will stand against the kings of Judah, officials, priests, and people of the land. Even though they fight against him, they will not prevail against him. There it is again: against. The key for Jeremiah comes at the end of verse 19: “for I am with you, declares the Lord, to deliver you.” It is an echo of 1:8. The message is clear. Do not be afraid. Whatever you have to say, whatever resistance you may meet, I am here.
God’s presence makes all the difference between being a fortified city and a broken-down heap of rubble, between standing in the middle of the storm and collapsing against the onslaught of the enemy.
As you read Jeremiah, you will see that this young prophet has a terrible message to give. It is one of plucking up and breaking down, destroying and overthrowing. But it is also a message of building and planting. A message of restoration. God promises the people of Judah that, if they repent, Jerusalem will be a fortified city again, rebuilt and restored to her former glory. But until they repent, Jeremiah will be a fortified city of one.
[i] S. Jonathan Murphy, “The Quest for the Structure of the Book of Jeremiah,” Bibliotheca Sacra 166 (July-September 2009): 315-316.
[ii] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Return (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 24.