How should the Christian relate to the world around him? What should our attitude and mindset be? It seems we can get some solid answers to these questions by looking at the life of Jeremiah. He of course was called to be a prophet, and while all of us may not have a similar calling, the way he lived his life offers a good example for all of us.
In the book of Jeremiah there are a number of his confessions, or complaints, or laments. Most are found amongst chapters 11-20, where I was reading again today. Often Jeremiah is discouraged, disappointed and frustrated. Despite his divine calling, he gets nothing but opposition from God’s people, and at times it seems like he is getting opposition from Yahweh as well.
There are several themes that I wish to focus on here, gleaned from this morning’s reading in these chapters. First, let me say a bit more about his complaints. One lesson from them should be clear: there will be discouragement in the life of the believer, and there is a place for God’s people to offer a lament, to complain, and to ask hard questions. Jeremiah did it. Job did it. David did it. Even Jesus did it while hanging on the cross.
The ministry of Jeremiah and his times of discouragement point out to us dramatically that serving the Lord faithfully does not always lead to popularity and success (from a human perspective). Often today those in ministry can get discouraged or have feelings of inadequacy if their ministry flounders or moves very slowly. It is important for us to remember that almost no one ever really listened to the message that Jeremiah preached. Humanly speaking, his ministry of reconciliation and his call to repentance were basically a flop. Yet he was carrying out the work that God had assigned to him. This underscores a very important lesson from Jeremiah. Sometimes God calls people to a service or ministry that will not be successful in human terms. . . . Obedience to the task that God has called us to is the measure of our success or failure.
Another thing that stands out here is the need to stand apart from a dark and dying culture, even while trying to reach it. This may seem to be a contradiction, but it is what Jeremiah was all about. While trying to reach his own people, he knew he had to do this while not becoming too much a part of the surrounding evil culture. In Jer. 15:17 we find the following:
I did not sit in the company of revelers,
nor did I rejoice;
I sat alone, because your hand was upon me,
for you had filled me with indignation.
One immediately thinks of a similar passage found in the psalter: Psalm 1:1:
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers.
With his calling Jeremiah had to be distinct, even a loner. That was his fate. It was not one of his own choosing, but it was part and parcel of his prophetic calling. In their commentary on Jeremiah, Craigie, Kelley and Drinkard remind us of what this isolation really entailed:
Jeremiah’s complaint “I sat alone” brings to mind the requirement that lepers should sit (dwell) alone, outside the camp (Lev 13:46). Jeremiah had become a social leper, an outcast among his own people. He lived apart from his people not because he enjoyed doing so but because they excluded him from their company.
Or as F. B. Huey puts it in his commentary, “There is often a price to pay for leadership. It may be the price of loneliness, misunderstanding, or separation from human associations. Jeremiah was so identified with God’s thoughts that he experienced the same indignation that God felt for the people’s sins.”
Sometimes in this dark world we must be like Jeremiah. We must be willing to stand alone, aloof, and rejected. We will never really be close friends with the world. How can we be? Jesus told us the world would hate us just as it hated him.
Another major theme worth looking at is this: Jeremiah knew about the need to proclaim God’s truth regardless of the negative and angry responses. Several things in these chapters have to do with God’s word. In Jer. 15:16 we read this:
Your words were found, and I ate them,
and your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart,
for I am called by your name,
O Lord, God of hosts.
And in Jer. 20:9 we find these words:
If I say, “I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,”
there is in my heart as it were a burning fire
shut up in my bones,
and I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.
As to the first passage Philip Graham Ryken says this: “Like the prophet Ezekiel, he gobbled up God’s Word (Ezekiel 3:3). He understood that the Word of God is more than just hors d’oeuvres. When God spoke, Jeremiah bellied up to the banqueting table and started packing it in.”
The second passage however has a rather different slant. Says Ryken, “This is another familiar text from Jeremiah that is usually taken out of context.” He explains:
When Jeremiah spoke about the fire in his bones, however, he was not speaking about the pleasures of ministry. He was not testifying to the delights of preaching in the Holy Spirit. He was not saying that his heart was aflame with the gospel. Rather, his heart burned with judgment. The fiery word in his bones was law rather than grace. He was not eager to preach but reluctant, for he knew that judgment would pour out as soon as he opened his mouth. Jeremiah would have given anything to have a mute ministry, but the Word of God would not allow him to remain silent. The fire in his bones inevitably blazed forth from his lips.
In this complaint Jeremiah felt hemmed in on all sides. He did not want to proclaim those words of judgment, and he did not like all the hatred and resistance he got from the people. But he also felt that God was almost forcing him to speak – how could he stay silent?
In his 2006 book Like Fire in the Bones, Walter Brueggemann put it this way: “Jeremiah is in every way a man of intense dispute. His calling, his passion, his moral-political judgements, his poetic imaginative power all set him on a course of inevitable dispute.” He says there are at least four areas of dispute. He is in conflict with:
-the royal apparatus
-his prophetic counterparts
-his own family and kinspeople
-and even Yahweh himself
The previous verses in ch. 20 deal with the prophet’s dispute with God. Because of all the grief he experiences in delivering the divine word, he considers NOT sharing it. But he loses either way. Tremper Longman comments:
In what may be one of his most famous statements, Jeremiah acknowledges that he contemplated not delivering the divine message. However, though tormented, he admits that he could not help himself. God’s word is like a fire in his innermost person (my heart and my bones). It is harder for him not to speak than to speak, a classic case of being “between a rock and a hard place.”
And we too can feel the tension. Sometimes we just have to speak out, although we know it will be costly, and it will be unwelcomed. Proclaiming the truth that God wants us to share will never come easy, especially when it is unwelcomed truth.
But it is far worse to refuse the heavenly calling. We all have a prophetic role to play in delivering the words of God to a hostile and uncaring audience – both without and within the church. It will not win us any awards or popularity contests.
It will mean facing more rejection and opposition. It will mean getting more enemies and losing more friends. It may well result in isolation, ostracisation and seclusion. But far better to endure the wrath and enmity of men than that of God. Jeremiah knew all about this, and we need to know about it as well.
Truth-speaking always involves paying a price. We appreciate it when a Jeremiah or Isaiah pays the price, but we shrink back when considering our own responsibilities here. As Vance Havner once wrote, “There has never been a rush to wear the prophet’s mantle.”
Or as Paul Washer has put it, “We honor the old prophets, we honor the Tozers and Spurgeons but we don’t want to pay the price they paid, and they paid the price by being men who walked alone who lived with God and who loved His word.”
But we are in desperate need of such prophets. Who will be our next Jeremiah?