The book of Jeremiah has plenty to teach contemporary Christians. It is loaded with important spiritual themes which we all can draw from. Here are some further lessons to be derived both from the book and from the prophet himself. One major theme is that of suffering.
The prophets had to endure great sufferings, and they could not expect to have an easy go of things. That has always been the case with those who speak for God. It must of necessity be our cross to bear as well if we are to faithfully represent God to a hostile world.
As Paul House puts it, “Throughout the canon God allows the righteous to endure events that go beyond discomfort to include outright pain and suffering. Jeremiah’s call includes a call to separation and pain (1:17-19) There is no more guarantee of ease for him than there was for Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Elijah or at times the nation itself. Something about God allows him to let the remnant endure, indeed call the remnant to, harsh circumstances.”
And Jeremiah, being a real human being, was not thrilled with all this suffering. Yet as we already noted, he continued doggedly in performing his divine calling. As John Bright puts it, “For all of Jeremiah’s despair, for all of his complaining and railing against his lot, he could not bring himself to quit the prophetic office, and did not do so. He was compelled to speak the word that had been given him.”
In this he prefigures the Suffering Servant, Jesus. As R.K. Harrison remarks, “It is hardly surprising that some mistook the Man of sorrows for the prophet of the broken heart, for Jeremiah and Christ both lamented and wept over their contemporaries (cf. 9:1 and Lk. 19:41). Jeremiah’s uncompromising condemnation of iniquity bought him rejection and suffering as it did to Christ, and Jeremiah actually compared himself to a lamb or an ox led to the slaughter (11:19).”
As James wrote centuries later: “Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered” (James 5:10-11).
In Jeremiah we also learn another crucial lesson: we must beware of preaching for popularity and the praises of men. This was certainly not what Jeremiah was all about. Indeed, during his day the only popular prophets were the false prophets. They were very well received indeed. But not Jeremiah. His constant messages of repentance and wrath to come were hardly crowd pleasers.
Indeed, he told God’s people to repent over 100 times. Yet incredibly we read of only two people in the entire book who responded favourably to his message. Just two! Everyone else rejected him and his hard word. How many Christian leaders would be as true to the Lord today, in spite of such complete rejection and opposition?
Indeed, how many Christian leaders today would be told to just give up, given that so little fruit is being borne? They would be told they were failures with such a poor track record, and they should look for another day job. Such an apparent lack of success would spell the doom of many a modern minister.
And Jeremiah did not just seem to be an immense failure, but all his contemporaries thought very little about the man and his message. The message he was preaching and the lifestyle they were living were totally opposed to each other.
I like the way F.B. Huey puts it in his commentary: “Jeremiah was constantly at odds with his contemporaries. Their differences arose from his negative view of the future; he was unable to shake his countrymen from their smug complacency. Jeremiah was convinced that Judah would not survive because of its wickedness and refusal to repent and return to God.”
Jeremiah was certainly countercultural. Are we? Are we also willing to bear ostracism, criticism, ridicule and rejection as we seek to faithfully proclaim the word of God today? Or are we far too concerned with pleasing men, building a large congregation, and bringing in more money?
Walter Brueggemann has said that the role of the ancient prophets, and of prophetic ministry today, is “to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” Or as others have said of the prophetic task, the prophet must comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
R. Kent Hughes quotes the words of Kathleen Morris: “A prophet’s task is to reveal the fault lines hidden beneath the comfortable surface of the worlds we invent for ourselves, the national myths as well as the little lies and delusions of control and security that get us through the day. And Jeremiah does this better than anyone.”
The comments by Elmer Martens about prophetic courage are also worth noting – and taking to heart: “[Such courage] entails boldness to confront evils in a world where evil is normalized; to protest against preachers of an ‘easy grace’ which promises endless benefits without responsibility; to present a God who demands righteous living and sends his wrath against all evil.”
Quite so. Where are the Jeremiah’s of today? But it also must be stressed that it was not all gloom and doom in Jeremiah’s message. He also spoke of a return from exile, as hard as that may have been to imagine at the time. And then there is the great passage of the promised New Covenant found in Jeremiah 31. It is a glorious word of hope found in a very despairing and tragic set of prophecies.
This is so often the case with prophetic pronouncements. Words of judgment and wrath are mingled with words of grace and hope. The whole counsel of God, in other words, is proclaimed. Today we tend to concentrate on the good news bits of the gospel, while ignoring the bad news bits.
Consider the covenant Yahweh had made with Israel. It had its good bits (blessings for obedience) and its bad bits (curses for disobedience). The true prophet of God had to proclaim both sides of this covenantal reality. Jeremiah certainly did just that.
As Tremper Longman remarks, “The prophets in general and Jeremiah in particular, may be helpfully thought to be the lawyers of the covenant, particularly the Mosaic covenant as established in Exodus 19-24. . . . In particular, Jeremiah is a prosecuting attorney for the Lord. The covenant law has been extensively broken for a prolonged time. Jeremiah’s ministry is to charge God’s people with wrongdoing and call them to repent, otherwise God will effect the covenant curses.”
Both the good news and the bad news need to be proclaimed. If we only talk about the good stuff, we are in fact being false witnesses. We cannot do that and remain true to our Lord. We must fearlessly preach and teach all that God has spoken, even if it means being unpopular, unwelcomed, and unwanted. Jeremiah did this for over forty years. Jesus too spoke a hard word, and met a similar fate to Jeremiah.
Indeed, much can be made of the similarities between Jeremiah and Jesus. John Goldingay puts it this way: “The parallels between Jeremiah and Jesus are striking. Both experienced isolation and betrayal by those nearest to them. Both experienced the loss of family and home and a permanent place to lay their head. Both were inwardly torn apart (in Gethsemane, in Jesus’ case) even while they were hard as a rock outside (in the temple or on trial). It is hardly surprising that some people, when asked who they thought Jesus was, suggested he might be Jeremiah reincarnate. Jesus supremely fulfils Jeremiah’s kind of calling.”
Can we be, and do, anything less? Not only is Jeremiah a role model for us, but supremely so is Jesus. Both show us what a real man of God looks like, and what is expected of God’s people in a dark and hostile world. May the Lord raise up many more Jeremiahs to go forth and proclaim the entire counsel of God.