Commentary on Jeremiah 1:4-10
As we prepare to preach on Jeremiah 1:4-10, we need to decide from which perspective we are going to interpret and apply the text. The introductory verses (1:1-3) that lead into our text suggest a couple of options.
First, we could try to hear the passage as the prophet Jeremiah’s original audience would have heard it. The fact that Jeremiah 1:2-3 provides the historical context of Jeremiah’s ministry commends this approach. If we choose to preach the text from this perspective, we will think about how its message would have spoken to the prophet’s original hearers, what commonalities our listeners share with them, and how we can apply the message of the text to people in our contemporary context.
Second, we could try to hear the passage as the book of Jeremiah’s original audience would have heard it. The introduction to the book says that the prophet’s career lasted until the eleventh and final year of the reign of king Zedekiah (587 BCE), which was when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and sent many people from Judah into exile in Babylon. We know from the book of Jeremiah that the prophet’s ministry continued for several years after those events, including for some time in Egypt (see chapters 42–44). Moreover, we know from Jeremiah 52, most of which is taken from 2 Kings 24–25, that the book of Jeremiah was still being edited well into the Babylonian exile (see especially Jeremiah 52:31-34, which report the release from prison of the exiled king Jehoiachin in 560 BCE). If we choose to preach the text from the perspective of the exilic audience of the book of Jeremiah, we will seek commonalities between that audience and our congregation.
I would like to suggest another option for our approach to Jeremiah 1:4-10. It derives from the first two options, but it goes beyond them in offering a direct connection between the message of the words of the prophet Jeremiah in their historical context and the words of the book of Jeremiah in its canonical context on one hand and our preaching context on the other.
I suggest that we focus on the church’s mission of proclaiming the word of God. This approach takes seriously the fact that the word of God that Jeremiah proclaimed in his historical context and that the exiles heard in theirs is the same word of God that the church proclaims in our context. It treats Jeremiah’s experience of receiving, experiencing, and delivering the word of God as a paradigm for the church’s experience. Such an approach can open us up to some possibilities of contemporary relevance for Jeremiah 1:4-10.
Jeremiah’s purpose/the Church’s purpose (verses 4-5)
We can reasonably assume that our passage intends to report Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet. Jeremiah 1:2 says that the word of the Lord first came to Jeremiah in the thirteenth year of King Josiah’s reign, which was 627 BCE. We are not told how the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah. As we will see, there are visionary aspects to Jeremiah’s experience of the word—Jeremiah will later say that the Lord touches his mouth (verse 9). Perhaps we can also think of Jeremiah receiving strong impressions and even auditory revelations of the word of the Lord. The point is that the word of the Lord in fact came to the prophet.
The word of the Lord has also come to the church. The word has come to us—and continues to come to us—in Jesus Christ, who is the Word made flesh (John 1:14). Jesus is the primary and ultimate revelation of the word of God to us. The word also comes to us in and through the Holy Spirit, through the events of life, and through other people.
God tells Jeremiah that God knew, appointed, and set him apart as a prophet even before he was born. This means that God had a special purpose in mind for Jeremiah’s life. That purpose was for Jeremiah to serve as God’s prophet. This means that he was to serve as God’s spokesperson, which in turn means that he was to proclaim God’s word to the nations.
God has also set the Church apart to serve as proclaimers of God’s word to the nations. The Great Commission summarizes our commission (Matthew 28:19-20), and the entire New Testament and the history of the Church (acknowledging the problematic aspects of that history) bear witness to it. God’s intentional purpose was for Jeremiah to proclaim God’s word. That is also God’s intentional purpose for the Church.
Jeremiah’s hesitation/the Church’s hesitation (verses 6-8)
Jeremiah does not immediately embrace the claim that God has made on his life. He protests, “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” The Hebrew word translated “boy” can also mean a youth. Jeremiah may simply be saying that he is too young and inexperienced to do what God has called him to do. He may also be making the related claim that he lacks the necessary training to speak for God. The opening verse of the book says that Jeremiah was a member of a priestly family in Anathoth, but most interpreters of the book see no evidence that he functioned as a priest. But they do see evidence that he knew and used major traditions in his preaching. Still, we can’t know what Jeremiah knew at this point in his life. We can surely assume that he learned more as he lived, served, and matured.
Jeremiah’s hesitation has basis in fact—he is young, inexperienced, and untrained. The negative side to such hesitation is that it could be grounded in a desire to evade the responsibility that God is placing on him. The positive side to such hesitation is that it could demonstrate humility. Surely it would be arrogant to assume that one has the native ability or the skill set to be God’s spokesperson.
The church should accept with appropriate humility our responsibility to proclaim the word of the Lord. We should recognize and acknowledge our limitations. But we should not seek to evade the call that God has placed on our lives.
God told Jeremiah that he should not focus on his youth or inability. He should focus rather on obedience and on dependence. That is, he should do what God tells him to do, and he should do so with trust that God will accompany him in his mission and deliver him from his opponents.
The church is also to carry out our ministry of the word with obedience and with trust. How can we encourage our congregations to do so?
Jeremiah’s empowerment/the Church’s empowerment (verses 9-10)
God has told Jeremiah what God’s purpose for Jeremiah’s life is. Jeremiah has expressed hesitation about accepting his assignment. God has told him to obey God and to trust God. Now, God undertakes action to make it clear that God empowers Jeremiah to undertake and fulfill his commission. In a visionary and symbolic action, the Lord touches Jeremiah’s mouth and puts the Lord’s words in his mouth. God also says that God’s words working through Jeremiah will contribute to the fall and rise of nations. God uses four negative words and two positive ones to name how God’s words will work through Jeremiah’s ministry to accomplish God’s will in the world. Given the nature of Jeremiah’s prophecies, it is probably no accident that the Lord uses twice as many negative as positive words, nor that the list ends with positive words.
God also puts God’s word in the church’s mouth. We proclaim that word, which we know most fully and experience most personally in Jesus Christ, with our words, with our perspectives, with our attitudes, with our relationships, and with our actions. We can’t know how God will work through God’s word as it flows through us to the world, but we can know that it will accomplish God’s purpose. We can trust that God is empowering us to effectively proclaim God’s word.