Commentary on Jeremiah 20:7-13
Anyone considering going into ministry would do well to read the book of Jeremiah.
A perusal of this book will dispel any idyllic notions one might have about what it means to accept a call into ministry, what it means to be God’s messenger.1
Unique among the prophets, Jeremiah shares not only his message, but also details of his experience as a messenger. The prophet’s pain is on display for all to see. Hiding from neither God, himself, nor the reader, Jeremiah refuses to be silenced by any who would rather turn away, by any who would prefer to reject him and tune out his message.
Given this backdrop, asserting that the prophetic task is difficult and costly is an understatement. Jeremiah knows that people likely would not heed his warnings and that the foreseen devastation and destruction would become a reality. This realization breaks his heart.
Jeremiah’s words portray the heart-wrenching despair of a man whose life is turned upside down when he answers God’s call. Earlier he protests that God deceives the people of Israel (Jeremiah 4:10). Here he complains that God deceives the prophet himself (20:7). The metaphorical device, deception, depicts just how dire the situation is. It portrays a longing for escape, an escape that is ever elusive, ever out of reach. For Jeremiah, the pain is so deep that he, like Job, curses the day of his birth and with anguish almost too deep for words, expresses the wish that his life would end before it began.
Jeremiah utters this curses not only because of his message, but also in response to the social death he experiences because of it. Social death can be described as a situation in which individuals live estranged from their communities. Jeremiah’s protests of the injustices of his time lead to social death when his community rejects him because they do not want to hear his words warning of defeat by the Babylonians (Jeremiah 20:7-10).
Humans are social by nature. When connections with community are lost or severed, those afflicted undergo significant emotional stress. This emotional stress, if intense and prolonged, can also lead to spiritual crisis. This is what happens to Jeremiah. Good relationships elude him. Commanded by God not to marry, to have children, or to participate in social activities (Jeremiah 16:1-8), and facing rejection and persecution by his community (20:1-6, 37:11-21), Jeremiah finds himself at the edge of despair.
In this moment of spiritual crisis, Jeremiah experiences God as less than beneficent, as deceiver. Persecuted by leaders, rejected and derided by his community, he stands alone. All of his relationships — with the divine and with humans — are in disarray.
In contrast to Job who curses due to the silence, the absence of God, Jeremiah curses due to the presence, the voice of God. In Jeremiah, the voice of God and the prophet’s voice are one. Unlike Job who suffered because he hears too little from God, Jeremiah hears too much. He cannot contain himself. He has to speak. God’s words, he writes, are like “fire shut up in my bones.”
The prophet’s response is an indication of the close connection between the prophet and his message. While some may try to distance themselves from the messages they bring, for Jeremiah, nothing could be further from the truth. For him, there is no separation between message and messenger. In fact, message and messenger are so connected that the community’s distaste for the message becomes rejection of the messenger.
For him, there is an inexorable connection between message and messenger. For Jeremiah, “It is personal.”
The opening verses in Jeremiah 1:4-19 describe the prophet’s call to ministry. Jeremiah initially resisted God’s call. From the outset, God’s reassurance convinced and informed Jeremiah that the task would not be easy. Yet, God insisted. God prevailed.
Given the rejection and social death that Jeremiah experiences, the words of 20:7-12 should come as no surprise. Even so contemporary readers are likely to be caught off guard not only by the depth of Jeremiah’s agony, but also by his imprecatory thoughts toward his detractors. Many would decry his honesty with God. Yet, in the depth of his feelings lies the source of the power of his message.
The prophet struggles because he would rather not deliver such a message — and yet, he cannot do otherwise. He cannot help but warn his beloved nation that death and destruction are on the horizon. While he cannot but speak, speaking comes at a high cost. He is a laughingstock, mocked and rejected by his community. The people with whom he ministers, the ones he is trying to help, are the very ones who distance themselves and cause him so much pain. Even those closest to Jeremiah fail to understand. Seeking revenge, they wait for him to fail. Jeremiah, for his part, remains confident in God, confident that his persecutors will not succeed, confident that God’s justice will come to pass, confident that he will see God’s retribution on those who cause him so much pain.
Much like the psalmists, Jeremiah’s words move from complaint to praise. His complaint helps him work through his feelings. From protest against Israel to protest toward God, he has come to terms with both personal and national situations. Knowing that he cannot help but continue his thankless task, Jeremiah ends by lifting up praise to God.
More than once when faced with honest feelings, whether one’s own or those of another, people are hastily advised to “get on with it.” Even in church, people are eager to put feelings aside without processing them. However, facing feelings honestly is essential to finding healing and wholeness for one’s life. Jeremiah is an excellent example of how the process works. The wise person would do well to learn from him.
1. Portions of this commentary are adapted from Alphonetta Wines, Thinking the Unthinkable: God as Enemy — An Image of God in the Book of Job and Other Books of the Hebrew Bible (Ph.D. dissertation, Texas Christian University, 2011).