Commentary on Jeremiah 15:15-21
The Bible is the world’s #1 bestselling book of all time. Its influence in the West (and in the world for that matter) cannot be overstated.
One of the reasons why the Bible remains an all-time bestseller is its willingness to tell the good, the bad, and the ugly of human endeavor.
Any visions that the Bible is all “peaches and cream” are quickly dispelled when the reader encounters passages such as Jeremiah 15:15-21. The idea of the flawless prophet who can do no wrong are immediately dashed to smithereens when the reader stumbles on this passage. Stunned, the reader might wonder, “Really, Jeremiah, really? Surely my eyes deceive me. This could not be the same Jeremiah that God called from the womb. Surely, this is not the same Jeremiah who fearlessly stood against the externals of temple worship. There is no way this could be the same Jeremiah who declared God’s promise of a new covenant written on the heart.” Resigned to the truth, even as the reader ponders these questions, he/she knows that this is indeed the same Jeremiah.
The writer lets the reader in on what otherwise is a private conversation between God and Jeremiah. After years of living in isolation (God told Jeremiah not to marry, have children, or even socialize at funerals and celebrations), preaching an innovative message of individual (not just communal) responsibility for sins, and having to deal with insults, persecution, and rejection (who wants to hear a message that failure to repent and change its ways means certain destruction?), Jeremiah is weary. He pours out his heart to God.
Jeremiah comes straight to the point in verse 15. He begins by asking God not only to remember him, but also to bring retribution on his persecutors. There is no subtlety here. Jeremiah has had enough. After all, earlier in Jeremiah 7:16, it seemed that even God had enough for God said, “As for you, do not pray for this people, do not raise a cry or prayer on their behalf, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you.”
Like the psalmists, including David, who called for God to take action against their enemies, Jeremiah longs for justice on his own behalf. Confident that he has answered God’s call and done what God asked him to do, Jeremiah reminds God that he suffers insult from others on God’s account. Though God’s words were a joy and a delight, he also experienced much hurt because of them. He tells God that his is a life lived alone, not by personal choice, but by God’s command.
Jeremiah’s pain can be characterized by an “unsettled ache … [a] war within.”1 He poignantly describes the ache as “unceasing, incurable, and refusing to be healed.” Portrayed as “a deceitful brook” and as “waters that fail,” even relationship with God provides no relief. With no comfort, divine or human, Jeremiah stands alone. Jeremiah is committed to God and to the task that God has given him. Yet, his struggle with the call to ministry is an ongoing issue; later in Jeremiah 20 the prophet will again express his anguish, denouncing his detractors and protesting God’s role in his life. Though there were times when he would rather not preach, he clearly could not stop. In 20:9, Jeremiah complained, “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”
Jeremiah’s petition for God to bring retribution on his persecutors is part of the Bible’s imprecatory corpus — a body of writings that the church would rather overlook and dismiss. While the imprecatory corpus can be hard to stomach, its connection to Jeremiah the prophet is even more difficult to understand. Surely, a man of God would not feel this way, would he?
Jeremiah’s words confirm that ministry is not an easy job. Ministry is not simply one task after another. Rather, the work of ministry touches the core of a minister’s being. While Jeremiah’s words may be surprising to the casual reader, ministers know that Jeremiah’s words are not empty words. Jeremiah’s words speak of the anguish that sometimes accompanies life in church leadership — and not just church life, but many times life in general as well.
Repeatedly throughout the Bible, imprecatory words help the utterer work through and find healing even in the most difficult situations. Suppression and denial of such feelings allows feelings of bitterness, even actions that harm others, to take root. Acknowledging these types of feelings in front of God allows God to step in and heal the woundedness and release the giftedness that lies beneath the hurt.
Unlike those who may try and talk others out of their feelings, God neither silences Jeremiah nor attempts to convince him otherwise. Instead God’s response is a call to repentance. Just as Jeremiah warned of destruction and called on the nation to repent, God instructs Jeremiah to repent. With the commandment for Jeremiah to repent comes the promise that God will restore him to his work as a prophet, to his work as God’s mouthpiece. Moreover, God assures Jeremiah that God will strengthen him to be able to withstand any and everything people do to oppose him. God promises to uphold Jeremiah and redeem him from any hostility that he might face.
The Bible does not record Jeremiah’s repentance, but his 40-year ministry implies it. While this complaint appears in chapter 15, the biblical record of his ministry does not end until chapter 52. The story of his life and message speak as powerfully today as in his day. The ability to acknowledge and repent of one’s feelings is part of the journey of faith. We, as ministers, would do well to follow Jeremiah’s example.
1. Tony Evans, The Power of God’s Names (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2014), 101.