Commentary on Jeremiah 20:7-13
Lament. Complaint. Confession. Weeping.
These words are typically associated with the prophet Jeremiah. People are perhaps aware of his propensity to weep and complain.
Our Scripture lesson for this Sunday provides an excellent example from this lament tradition. This poem is the last in a series of confessions in the book, and the rhetoric is the most provocative. The complaint concludes uniquely with a statement of praise.
The prophet speaks boldly and honestly to God about his dire situation and feelings of anguish.
A collection of confessions
Scholars have typically isolated six first-person poems in the book that resemble certain lament psalms: Jeremiah 11:18-23; 12:1-6, 15:10-21; 17:14-18; 18:19-23 and 20:7-13. These poems describe the prophet’s suffering (a symbol of the people’s misery) in personal and poignant language.
“It was the LORD who made it known to me, and I knew; then you showed me their evil deeds. But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter.” (Jeremiah 11:18-19a)
“Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart.” (Jeremiah 15:16a)
“Yet you, O LORD, know all their plotting to kill me. Do not forgive their iniquity, do not blot out their sin from your sight.” (Jeremiah 18:23a)
These are not the prayers of the timid.
Jeremiah does not suppress his feelings about his prophetic call and treatment from various adversaries. Preachers may find it helpful to read these poems and consult them as context for Jeremiah 20. However, we must be careful not to import a modern understanding of complaining or whining into this ancient context. Complaints can be legitimate.
Faithful people are likely not accustomed to such raw, honest speech addressed to God. The prophet becomes a model for faithful conversation and authentic sharing of feelings.
Are we bold enough to offer our lament to God?
Quarreling with God (verses 7-9)
The prophet complains to God. In an extraordinary move, Jeremiah accuses God of deceiving him. The language used in verse 7 is intentionally suggestive. The verb translated as “enticed” in verse 7 may have the sense of being persuaded or even beguiled. And what might it mean for God to overpower and prevail against him?
Does the prophet have a choice here?
Does Jeremiah have agency in this call?
Next, Jeremiah admits that his message of violence is not well accepted by his audience. He is mocked and derided. Therefore, God’s word has become a disgrace. When he tries not to speak of God, he feels an internal passion within him—a fire shut up in his bones.
One can feel the anguish of the prophetic role in these verses.
Jeremiah feels compelled and repelled by God’s message to the people. As Jack Lundbom notes, “This is his dilemma: Damned if he speaks; damned if he doesn’t. There is no solution; no way to achieve peace.”1
Quarreling with oppressors (verses 10-12)
Next, the prophet turns his energy toward his enemies, who are eager to condemn him. His friends are waiting for him to stumble. He does not appear to have the support of those around him. But he does have God! These persecutors will all be put to shame because of God. Jeremiah evokes the image of a divine warrior as his protector.
Jeremiah’s complaint against God earlier in the poem does not take away from his ability to see God as his vindicator. These two parts of the poem are not in theological tension.
Concluding with thanksgiving and praise (verse 13)
“Sing to The Living God! Praise The Living God!
For God has saved the life of the oppressed from the hands of evildoers.”
(Jeremiah 20:13, my translation)
Notice the profound way this passage ends: verse 13 is a brief hymn of thanksgiving. It is a surprising but common way to conclude a biblical lament. For example, we look to Psalms 6, 13, 22, and 35.
Psalm 22 begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (verse 1) but concludes, “For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations” (verse 28).
We may not be as comfortable with the combination of these two theological statements, but the psalmist and Jeremiah seem to be able to hold them together.
How are we called to an honest articulation of our feelings toward God and thanksgiving for God’s work in our lives?
Can we hold lament and praise together?
1. Jack Lundbom, Jeremiah 1-20 (Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 1999), 858.