Prophets preach. Perhaps this sounds obvious. Actually, it is not.
Some prophets model the moral life. Some prophets heal. Some prophets impress crowds with miracles. Jeremiah preached. Jeremiah's job was to speak. Indeed, in Jeremiah 15, we have access to Jeremiah's call to speak.
Speech permeates our lives. Presidents, provosts, professors, and pastors make speeches. The media is filled with talking heads. The government makes a profession out of rhetorical speech. Advertisers similarly study what makes speech work on people. Americans exercise their right to free speech. We live in a loud world. We make home videos. We can speak our minds in our Facebook status updates and Twitter feeds. We can comment on blogs. We can write blogs. We are surrounded by microphones, videos, Skype, television, apps, and websites. Speech is everywhere.
Occasionally, our society pauses to examine the way in which we use speech. One such moment recently presented itself in the Arizona shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. Immediately following the incident, the media erupted with stories about the effect of caustic political speech. Indeed, people wondered if the handful of political smear ads and rhetoric against Congresswoman Giffords fed a dangerous anger that led to her shooting. Ultimately, no connection between our rancid political speech and the shooter could be established. Nevertheless, the incident served as a wake-up call to the poor climate and quality of our political speech.
While the wake-up calls do occur, for the most part, our speech continues apace. And the pace is dizzying, the volume is deafening, and the density is overwhelming. This surely cannot be healthy. I am reminded of the Proverb that says "when words are many, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech" (Proverbs 10:19).
In general, we could learn a lot from the practice of restraint. Indeed, fasting from speech in a normal day can offer tremendous insight! However, Jeremiah's call offers us a unique opportunity to reflect on precious speech, or speech that holds weight.
Ours Should Be Prophetic Speech
Prophetic speech is not reserved for the biblical prophets alone. In the book of Numbers, Moses wistfully remarks, "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!" (Numbers 11:29; cf. Acts 2:17). People who follow the Lord are invited to consider what prophetic speech would look like coming from their own mouths.
Prophetic speech is not simply inspired opinion. Neither does it draw strength from popular sentiment or ideology. Prophetic speech comes from a profound encounter with God. Jeremiah's call in chapter 15 gives us a sense of what this encounter might look like.
Jeremiah's Call to Prophetic Speech
Jeremiah's call begins with a delightful discovery. God's words "were found" (verse 16). This discovery proved so significant to Jeremiah that he immediately internalized it. He tells us that this was an entirely pleasurable experience. Finding and ingesting God's words brought him joy and delight.
After his discovery, Jeremiah does not immediately publish his findings. Verse 17 indicates that the prophet holds his tongue. He waits to speak, deepening his thoughtfulness. This period of waiting, where he refrains from celebration, reveals another aspect to prophetic speech. The words take on a difficult weight.
Holding his tongue begins to produce a range of emotional responses in Jeremiah. He feels angry, isolated, and wounded. From verse 15, it seems likely that Jeremiah's patient silence includes social torment of some kind. For certain, Jeremiah lashes out at God and accuses him of lying to him. Where previously, Jeremiah felt joy at the discovery of God's words, over time, the words begin to feel like a dead end: "waters that fail" (verse 18).
Jeremiah's movement from joy to turmoil reminds me of a wonderful quote by Henry Ward Beecher. "Truths are first clouds, then rain, then they are harvest and food." The delight Jeremiah felt could be likened to a blue sky with brilliant white clouds. However, these are harbingers to a rain storm. In such a storm, with thunder, darkness, and drenching rain, one quickly loses sight of the lofty clouds that first inspired. And this is exactly where Jeremiah arrives, at bleak anger and wounded confusion.
What happens next makes Jeremiah's call to prophetic speech truly amazing. Jeremiah has a choice. God indicates that Jeremiah could offer the world two kinds of speech: worthless speech or precious speech (verse 19). "Worthless" speech might be that which indulges in despair, confusion, or drama. Worthless speech probably stems from anger and hurt. Worthless speech flows out of the disappointment and isolation Jeremiah feels after the glow of his inspiration fades. Worthless speech simply accepts the bleakness of Beecher's storm.
The amazing thing is that Jeremiah does not choose to deliver worthless speech to Israel. God gave him a decision, and Jeremiah chose to speak weighty words. Once again, the text does not provide detail about "precious" or "weighty" speech. But some things are implied. Weighty speech does not pander to public opinion ("you will not turn to them," verse 19). Weighty speech is strong enough to endure critique ("wall of bronze," verse 20). Weighty speech requires confidence in nothing less than the protection of God.
In the face of our cultural excess of speech, Jeremiah's call to speak could seem like one more decibel in the noise pollution of our world. Indeed, in his day, Jeremiah was one of several hundred prophets speaking in Jerusalem. The ancient excess of speech in Jerusalem is still true for us today. However, Jeremiah's call offers us a glimpse into speech worth saying. His call models how we might experience God's prophetic call for weighty speech.