Commentary on Jeremiah 15:15-21
As I write this commentary, I am only 2 weeks removed from the events of June 5, 2014.
On that day a gunman with a history of mental illness, stepped onto the campus of the university where I teach, and began a shooting spree that left one student dead and two students injured. Were it not for the actions of a brave student who disarmed him, the death toll would have been much higher since the gunman intended to replicate the 1999 Columbine shooting.
Because we are a Church-related university, our response to this tragedy was to gather within hours of the shooting to pray. It was there a colleague of mine, Frank Spina, opened his homily with these remarks, “One of the things that I love about being a Christian, is that I’m required to be honest. I’m angry, I’m upset. This act has been an act of madness, insanity, and evil. And so it’s a day for lament. It’s a day to scream. It’s a day not to go too soon to comfort because that makes it false. One of the things I love about the Bible is its deep, almost brutal honesty.”
One need not look much further than the book of Jeremiah for brutal honesty. Jeremiah is often cast as the “weeping prophet” since no other prophetic book contains as much description of the prophet’s woes. The prophet’s own suffering is most visible in the laments of Jeremiah found in 11:18-12:6; 15:10-21; 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-18, as well as in other texts. Although these passages are often referred to as “confessions,” such a label is a misnomer since they are neither confessions of sin nor of praise. Instead these passages resemble lament psalms (e.g., Psalm 13), which typically contain the elements of a cry to God, description of suffering, questions to God, condemnation of enemies, petition for deliverance, confession of trust, and a divine response.
While the laments of Jeremiah do not all match this form, there are enough similarities for readers to recognize that these texts resemble Israel’s liturgical speech. The significance of this shared genre could not be more important. The prophetic response to suffering — raw, honest, intimate lament — is deemed acceptable worship unto God. The prophetic response to evil and injustice is to worship, even if all God’s people can muster are tears and complaints.
Jeremiah 15:15 begins with the prophet addressing God with unusual candor and directness, “You! O LORD you know” (translation mine). The lament that follows contains the following three elements: the petition (15b), an argument for the prophet’s deliverance (15c-17), and complaint (18). In the petition the prophet calls upon God to “remember,” “visit,” bring retribution,” and “not take away.” The plea to “remember” is common to lament psalms (e.g., 25:6-7; 89:47, 50). The verb, “to visit” can be understood in both positive and negative terms; it can signify God’s actions to deliver the righteous as well as judge the wicked. “To bring retribution” can also be translated, “to avenge” and refers to God’s vindication of the innocent in the face of enemies.
The message is clear: Jeremiah pleads with God to act immediately and decisively on his behalf. The prophet can approach God with such confidence because he has demonstrated fidelity to his God. According to verses 15c-17 it is because of the LORD’s sake Jeremiah suffers. Verse 16 recalls the fact that when Jeremiah was called by God into service (cf. Jeremiah 1:4-12), his attitude was one of joyful obedience. The “eating” of God’s words in verse 16 (cf. Ezekiel 3:1-3) illustrates that Jeremiah did not only serve as a reliable messenger of God’s words, but he also embodied them in his life. Prophets incarnate the word through signs and in Jeremiah’s case he, in the very next chapter, is commanded to remain celibate and childless as a sign of God’s judgment upon Israel (16:1-13).
Whereas Jeremiah approached service to God with an attitude of delight (verse 16), he has only received indignation, anger, and bitterness in return (verse 17). For this reason the prophet can accuse God of deceiving him in verse 18. Like a brook that has run dry, so too the promise of God’s blessing has come up empty. The prophet assumed that God would support him should he obey the call to ministry, yet instead he has only experienced abandonment.
In Jeremiah 15:19-21 God offers a response to the prophet’s complaint. As is often the case in Scripture, God answers the prayers of the people not with the response they want to hear. Brueggemann offers the reminder, “The hazard of such honest prayer, as we shall see, is that Yahweh can be equally honest and therefore abrasive in response to prayer.”1 Jeremiah 15:20 is nearly a verbatim quote of 1:18-19, “And I for my part have made you today a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall, against the whole land — against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the LORD, to deliver you.”
God reminds Jeremiah that the suffering he has experienced is as advertised. Jeremiah then, is not to crumble in the face of adversity but rather redouble his commitment to his prophetic vocation. Persecution has not derailed God’s promise to deliver and vindicate (verse 20), and God reminds Jeremiah that his perseverance is the very vehicle by which the people are won over to repentance (verse 19). In the midst of injustice, Jeremiah is not to allow evil to overcome good.
Jeremiah 15:15-21 teaches that honesty and faithfulness in the midst of suffering are the hallmarks of prophetic ministry. The prophet’s recommitment to his initial calling is the means by which God effects redemption in the world and reaffirms the promises of deliverance. The recent shooting at my university has prompted me to be more honest, and it has convinced me that the world desperately needs theologians and pastors. Today, I am ever more committed to my ministerial vocation. May suffering manifest the same result in you.
1 Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 114.