Commentary on Jeremiah 20:7-13
Reading through this text brings to mind what Professor John Bright once wrote about these “confessions” of Jeremiah:
Here, indeed, we learn what faith really is: not that smug faith which is untroubled by questions because it has never asked any; but that true faith which has asked all the questions and received very few answers, yet has heard the command, Gird up your loins! Do your duty! Remember your calling! Cast yourself forward upon God!1 (The Kingdom of God, 119-20)
The Prophet and his Time
The opening of the book (Jer 1:1-3) indicates that Jeremiah was from a clergy family living in the small town of Anathoth just a few miles north of Jerusalem. Born around 645 BCE, Jeremiah was about 18 when he was called to be a prophet in 627, the thirteenth year of King Josiah’s administration (Jer 1:1-3). This was the same year that the emperor Assurbanapal died, signaling that the days of Assyrian empire were numbered. The end came for Assyria with the fall of Nineveh to the Medes and Babylonians in 612, and by 605 Babylon ruled the world, including Judah. The prophet lived through these tumultuous times. He witnessed the end of Assyria, the beginning of Babylonian rule, and the downfall of his own nation Judah, as the ill-advised and arrogant leaders brought the roof down on their head. Jerusalem was burned, and the majority of the citizens were taken into exile in Babylon in 587. Specialists in the study of this prophet have expended enormous energy in seeking to relate the narratives and sayings in the Jeremiah book to the events of these times. In any case, his work extended for some 40 years, from 627 to 587 BCE.
The Laments of Jeremiah
Jeremiah 20:7-13 is one of a half-dozen texts known as the “confessions” or better “laments” of Jeremiah. (11:18-23; 12:1-6; 15:10-21; 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-13, 14-18). While outwardly the prophet appeared as a “wall of bronze” (1:18; 15:20), these laments reveal something of the turmoil he was experiencing within. He had not wanted the job in the first place (1:6) and claimed the Lord had seduced him into it (20:7). His own family and friends had turned against him (11:19,21). He found himself alone, unable to enjoy good times (15:17). He went so far as to wish he’d never been born (20:14-18). And whose fault was all this? Jeremiah did not hesitate to place the blame for his dire circumstances on the God who had called him to this task in the first place, accusing God as being as deceitful as a mirage in the desert (15:18).
Jeremiah 20:7-13 and the Lament Psalms
The clue to understanding today’s text is to see it in the context of the laments in the Book of Psalms. Psalm 13 provides a good example of the elements in the individual lament psalm: 13:1-2 is a complaint against God in the you form, (1), concerning self in the I form (2ab) and about others in the they form (2c). 13:3-4 is a petition or call for help. 13:5 is an affirmation of trust and 13:6 is a vow to praise God.
Jeremiah 20:7-13 begins with a complaint in the you-form, against God (7a) and an I-they complaint (7b) about enemies of the psalmist. Vs 8 is a they-complaint, about the psalmist’s enemies. Vs 9 is an I- complaint and 10a they-complaint. Vs 11 is an affirmation of trust and 12 concludes with a request that the Lord punish the psalmist’s enemies. Vs 13 is a call to praise, rounding out the lament in its typical form.
Toward Preaching: “You Won’t Have to Go It Alone!”
No one ever said in regard to the Christian life, “The Lord promises you a rose garden.” The lectionary texts for this Sunday indicate that there will troubles enough for believers. Psalm 69 is an individual lament, designed for one who is drowning in sorrows and trouble (69:1-3), insulted by enemies and relatives (7-8), the subject of gossip (12), crying to God for rescue (13-18). The situation sounds very much like Jeremiah’s life! Matthew 10:24-39 is a portion of one of Jesus’ major discourses. Jesus assumes those whom he is addressing will face death (28), and strong opposition (34). He declares that discipleship comes with a cost, a cross (37-39). With its emphasis on trials and troubles, Jeremiah 20:7-13 fits in with these other lectionary texts for the day. But what particular word does this text bring?
The Psalm, the Gospel, and the Jeremiah text for today all indicate that God’s people are not exempt from tough times. We all know those times: innocent children are killed in a bus crash, a terrible disease strikes a young mother, a marriage splits, a young man from the congregation is killed in a war.
There will be times when every preacher, every person trying to live a responsible life with God runs into unbearable, tragic situations. At such times one may have to say “Lord, you got me into this mess; now get me out of it!” Jeremiah was promised that the Lord would be with him (1:8; 19; 15:20) and he hangs on to that promise in this lament “But the Lord is with me…” (20:11).
When Paul was fearful about continuing his missionary work, there was that same promise (Acts 18:9-10) When any one of us stands at the edge of one of life’s dark valleys, the psalmist’s prayer can be ours, “for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4). The ancient Christian greeting which remains a part of our greeting and wish for one another says it all: “The Lord be with you.” The last words of Jesus to his disciples were, “And I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:20). That’s a promise. You won’t have to go it alone.
1John Bright, The Kingdom of God (Nashville: Abingdon, 1953) 119-120.