Make No Excuses

 

Week of August 5, 2012

 

Bible Verses:  Jeremiah 1:4-14,17-19.

 

Lesson Focus:  This lesson is about God calling His people to service in spite of their inadequacies, and about His preparing those whom He calls.

 

God Calls:  Jeremiah 1:4-8.

 

[4]  Now the word of the LORD came to me, saying, [5]  "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." [6]  Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth." [7]  But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a youth'; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. [8]  Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the LORD."  [ESV]

 

[4-8]  The expression the word of the Lord, which opens the account of Jeremiah’s call, is significant. The Hebrew word translated word means word, thing, action. For the ancient Israelite, word and event were part of the same expression. What a person thinks or plans, what he says and what he does are all part of the same event. During his ministry Jeremiah both preached and performed symbolic acts; both these activities were means of declaring the word of the Lord. The clear consciousness of a call came to Jeremiah in the form of a dialog. This was not an unusual occurrence in Israel. Isaiah’s call involved a dialog [Isaiah 6] as did the call of Ezekiel [Ezekiel 1-3]. It was important for Jeremiah to be able to claim that his call had come direct from the Lord since he was to encounter other prophets during the long years of his ministry. Of particular importance to Jeremiah was the awareness that he had been predestined to occupy the prophetic office since his birth, indeed before his birth: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. This opening word of the dialog is deeply significant. If ever Jeremiah in later days was overtaken by despair he could know that the divine purpose for him reached back before his birth. The three verbs used in verse 5 (knew … consecrated … appointed) are also significant. The verb ‘know’ often carried considerable depth of meaning in the Old Testament, for it reached beyond mere intellectual knowledge to personal commitment. For this reason it is used of the intimate relations between a man and his wife [Gen. 4:1]. It was used of Yahweh’s commitment to Israel [Amos 3:2]. It was the Lord’s deep sorrow that there was no knowledge of God among His people [Hosea 4:1], for the knowledge of Yahweh was far more important than burnt offerings [Hosea 6:6]. The Lord’s deep commitment to His servant, then, reached back before His birth. The second verb, consecrated, gathers about it another aspect of commitment. Basically the root of the verb is concerned with setting something apart from all other uses to a specific use. It is therefore of significance in the religious sphere where persons, places, things, days, seasons can be set apart (consecrated) for the Lord. Once set apart, these items were for the sole use of the Lord, and it was an act of blasphemy to remove them from His sovereign right to them. Jeremiah understood himself as having been set apart for a particular task. The third verb, appointed, refers to the specific assignment of Jeremiah to a particular task, that of being a prophet to the nations. Jeremiah’s special appointment was to the nations, not simply to Judah alone. There were no limits to the Lord’s sovereignty and therefore there were no limits to the scope of Jeremiah’s ministry. Jeremiah’s response to the Lord was hesitant and brief. I do not know how to speak was a simple confession, not of dumbness, but of lack of training to speak confidently about any one of the nations. Equally disconcerting was the fact that Jeremiah was only a youth. On the two grounds then of inexperience and youth, Jeremiah hesitated to accept the Lord’s call. The way in which a call from God came to a potential prophet is impossible to define, since God makes His approach in very personal ways. Often a good deal of preliminary activity goes on before a man responds. The experiences of life, the influence of other people, the personal cultivation of one’s communion with God all contribute. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that some in Jeremiah’s circle who were sincere adherents of the ancient covenant precepts influenced the growing boy. Possibly he had early contact with the “book of the law,” almost certainly some form of the ancient covenant law and perhaps a form of the book of Deuteronomy. The proposal that Jeremiah’s sense of God’s pressure upon his life was influenced by such a passage as Deuteronomy 18:18 has considerable merit. Indeed, some of the actual phrases in that passage, which refers to another prophet, like Moses, whom God would raise up to continue the work of Moses, reappear here in verses 7 and 9 only slightly modified. In several particulars Jeremiah was much like Moses. He shrank from God’s call as Moses did. The narrative in Exodus 4:1-17 reveals Moses presenting excuse after excuse to God in answer to God’s call. The people did not believe him. He was not eloquent but was slow of speech and tongue. Jeremiah also complained that he did not know how to speak. The prophet Isaiah like Moses and Jeremiah pleaded his unworthiness to undertake the task to which he was called [Isaiah 6:5]. In all three instances God rejected their protestations, and as their life-stories unfold it is clear they were commissioned for their task and duly undertook it. Human inadequacy and inexperience provide the occasion for divine enablement. It was so in the case of Moses and Isaiah and it was the experience of Jeremiah. Yahweh rejected all excuses with a simple instruction, Do not say, I am only a youth; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go. There was no choice of audience for Jeremiah. He was to go to anyone and everyone to whom the Lord might send him. Nor did he have a choice of message. He was to tell his audience all that the Lord commanded him. It was a continuing conviction of Jeremiah’s that he was simply speaking the word the Lord had given him, and he declared this at times of extreme peril or at times when it might have been to his advantage to modify Yahweh’s word. But coupled to that imperious word was a strong word of reassurance: Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you. Only the strong reassurance of the Lord’s abiding protection would suffice to strengthen and encourage Jeremiah. At times, Jeremiah felt bowed down by the pressures of his persecutors and seems almost to have doubted the Lord’s assurance [20:7-18]. But it was only a temporary doubt in every case, and his persistence in his calling even beyond the fall of Jerusalem bears witness to his own deep conviction about the Lord’s promise.

 

God Equips:  Jeremiah 1:9-10.

 

[9]  Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the LORD said to me, "Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. [10]  See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."  [ESV]

 

[9-10]  The divine word revealed to Jeremiah’s inner consciousness was accompanied by a confirmatory sign which presumably occurred in a vision, that is, Jeremiah was not only inwardly aware of auditory data, but also of visual information. However, a third party at the prophet’s side when this vision was given would not have been aware of any phenomenon; it was granted to the prophet’s psyche alone. But the visionary nature of the sign would not have lessened the vividness with which it would have impressed itself on Jeremiah. The Lord’s hand is a sovereign action which accompanies divine bestowal of blessing. Touched conveys the idea of contact being made between persons. The significance of the Lord touching Jeremiah with His hand is explained by the divine word: I have put my words in your mouth. The prophet now has a message to relay, not one of his own devising, but one divinely provided. I have set you refers to the action of a superior with respect to an inferior and conveys the idea that Jeremiah has been divinely appointed to an office and invested with all the authority associated with it. As far as God is concerned, Jeremiah is a man under orders to whom authority has been delegated. This helps explain the power of the prophetic word which comes from its divine originator. However, the sphere of the prophet’s authority is wider than might have been expected. It is over nations and over kingdoms. The Lord’s dominion knows no bounds, and so He is in a position to delegate to others international responsibilities. Jeremiah has a message to deliver that impacts on the destiny not only of Judah but also of neighboring nations. The prophet speaks for God, and as he utters His words, so the divine purpose is put into execution. The prophet’s task is presented in terms that go beyond a messenger merely announcing a decree, to a governor given effective authority by God to implement his decrees throughout the territories under his sway. The divine rule, and Jeremiah’s administration of it, are described in six terms: four of which are negative, and two positive; three of which are from an agricultural background, and three from a building one, though to destroy is used in a variety of contexts. The negative terms precede the positive because of the order in which Jeremiah’s ministry as regards Judah would be carried out: the overgrown field of the nation will first have to be cleared of thorns and weeds before true crops can be planted; the unsteady structures of the land would have to be demolished to make room for future construction. That there are four negative terms and two positive may well reflect the balance of Jeremiah’s ministry – more demolition work was needed than reconstruction. There is probably also here the tension between expressions of condemnation and expressions of praise that is needed in any ministry that would reflect the balance of God’s word. The words are repeated in a number of forms throughout the book and evidently formed a theme round which Jeremiah perceived his ministry to center.

 

God Affirms:  Jeremiah 1:11-14; 17-19.

 

[11]  And the word of the LORD came to me, saying, "Jeremiah, what do you see?" And I said, "I see an almond branch." [12]  Then the LORD said to me, "You have seen well, for I am watching over my word to perform it." [13]  The word of the LORD came to me a second time, saying, "What do you see?" And I said, "I see a boiling pot, facing away from the north." [14]  Then the LORD said to me, "Out of the north disaster shall be let loose upon all the inhabitants of the land. [17]  But you, dress yourself for work; arise, and say to them everything that I command you. Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them. [18]  And I, behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land. [19]  They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the LORD, to deliver you."  [ESV]

 

[11-14]  The next two sections of this chapter [11-12 and 13-16] present visions which follow on from the prophet’s call and set out basic aspects of the task to which he was called. In neither vision is there any elaboration of the details of what was seen, but one key aspect is emphasized and explained. A vision is divinely given revelation experienced in the form of visual perception where there is no external, publicly accessible phenomenon, but where God directly stimulates the inner capacities of the recipient so that they experience the same inner sensation as they would have done had there been appropriate external stimuli. A vision is thus private to the recipient, but not merely the product of the recipient’s own imagination or mental faculties. It is not a hallucination, but objective divine communication. A vision is also to be distinguished from a dream in that the recipient is not asleep, but conscious, in possession of his mental faculties, and able to interact with what is perceived. Both visions are introduced by the formula, the word of the Lord came to me. The revelation proceeds by way of a conversation: Jeremiah, what do you see? This is to evoke a response from the prophet, and involve him as more than a passive recipient of the vision. Jeremiah’s response is correct, and the significance of the vision is explained in terms of a word association that is easily made in Hebrew. The Hebrew word for the almond tree was ‘the watchful or alert one’, because early in the season, before other trees, its blossom and the buds of leaves appeared. The Lord used the almond branch as a symbol of what He Himself was doing: I am watching which emphasized the intensity and vigilance of divine scrutiny. When called on to be the bearer of the Lord’s word, Jeremiah would undoubtedly have had unresolved questions about how that word worked itself out in practice. Right from the start the Lord acted to convince the young prophet that His word for the people had not been discarded and that its warnings would be implemented if there was no suitable response forthcoming. By the verbal connection between the almond branch and the thought of watchfulness Jeremiah is alerted to the Lord’s scrutiny of what is taking place and the inexorability of the process by which the divine purpose will be worked out. Immediate inaction should not be confused with lack of interest. The Lord of history who has announced His will to His people is taking steps to ensure that what He has proposed will surely come to pass. In the second vision, the focus shifts from the actualization of the divine message entrusted to the prophet to the content of the message. In this vision Jeremiah sees a boiling pot which has settled unevenly on the fire so that it is tilting away from the north. Because of this tilting, the pot was liable to spill its contents out onto the fire or hearth. The divine explanation associates the boiling pot with what the Lord is about to do. There remains the question of just what historical event gave rise to this vision of disaster coming from the north. The picture is one of an ominous threat. Just as the spilled contents of the pot would scald anyone they touched, so those involved in what is let loose by the Lord from the north will be engulfed in catastrophe. The message Jeremiah is given to proclaim is that a time of general calamity is impending for Judah and Jerusalem.

 

[17-19]  After the two visions, these verses look back to the narrative of the call in 1:4-10. There is a renewed recognition of Jeremiah’s fearfulness and of the divine promise to counter it. Although he had not yet faced opposition, Jeremiah was well aware of the fact that the underlying spiritual conditions in Judah continued to be unfavorable for the reception of the divine message and messenger. And if he was not aware of it already, he was left in no doubt about it by the charge given to him. Difficult times lay ahead for the prophet of the Lord. There is a balance between verse 17 which begins But you, and verse 18 which begins And I. On the one hand there is Jeremiah’s responsibility as regards the commission given to him, and on the other there is the Lord’s commitment to assist his messenger in the execution of his duty. The task before him is one that requires immediate preparation for strenuous activity: dress yourself for work. Two specific aspects of his task are identified. (1) Arise, and say to them everything that I command you. The prophet is above all else the Lord’s spokesman, and so his task is to deliver the message entrusted to him. Faithful transmission of the divine word was the mark of a prophet who corresponded to Moses. (2) But the message must also be delivered in a specific way. When the Lord’s spokesman encounters opposition and hostility, he is not to apologize for his message or present it half-heartedly. He is not to cringe but to be forthright and bold in his presentation. Jeremiah is not to let human opposition undermine his nerve and alter the demeanor that is appropriate to the deliverer of the Lord’s word of warning. If he does, then the Lord will let him experience real abandonment in which he will indeed tremble within and without. This stern word is a call to faith and continuing trust in the Lord rather than giving way to feelings of panic. The Lord then turns to set out what He will do for Jeremiah so that he will be able to withstand the pressures that he will be under as a result of his commission. Jeremiah’s fate will be quite different from that of Judah and Jerusalem [15] because the Lord will make him impregnable. Just as a besieged city had to withstand external pressure, so Jeremiah will be able to endure sustained opposition. The Lord is going to protect His prophet so that he is able to stand against the whole land. The promise is not that opposition will be cleared out of his path, but rather that Jeremiah will be given the inner resources to stand up to and endure the antagonism that he will have to face, even though it comes from every quarter. The extent of the anticipated opposition is clearly spelled out: Against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land. The opposition was certainly going to involve the most influential classes in the land, and Jeremiah was going to be an isolated figure, opposing the establishment of his day and its ideology. On his own he would not have the resources to cope with his situation. Indeed, the book makes clear that even with divine assistance he was hard pressed to deal with it. But what a difference there is between Jeremiah’s experience and that of Jerusalem: the one equipped to stand in obedience to the word of the Lord, and the other doomed to fall because of her disobedience. The Lord’s presence with him would be particularly evident in his situation of difficulty when the promise of rescue already made in verse 8 would be fulfilled. This is the abiding feature of the lives of all the people of God. It is not their wisdom or strength that ensures their survival, but God’s protecting presence with them to ensure their deliverance.

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.         Focus on the four terms used to describe God’s calling of Jeremiah: formed, knew, consecrated, appointed. What do these terms tell you about Jeremiah’s calling? In what sense are these terms true of every believer?

 

2.         Think about the statement: “Human inadequacy and inexperience provide the occasion for divine enablement.” How have you found this to be true in your own life?

 

3.         Look at the six terms in 1:10 and the two visions in 1:11-14. What was God telling Jeremiah concerning his ministry? Put yourself in Jeremiah’s place. What thoughts would be running through your mind? What emotions would you be feeling? What promises and assurances do you find in these verses that would sustain you as you sought to be faithful to your calling [see 7,8,9,10,18,19]? Note how God does not promise to keep trouble from coming to Jeremiah, but only to deliver and protect him in the midst of the trouble. In the same way God does not keep us from encountering life’s storms, but He will see us through them.

 

References:

The Message of Jeremiah, Derek Kidner, Inter Varsity.

Jeremiah, John Mackay, Mentor.

The Book of Jeremiah, J.A. Thompson, Eerdmans.