Criswell Theological Review 5.1 (1990) 99-108

[Copyright 1990 by Criswell College, cited with permission;

digitally prepared for use at Gordon and Criswell Colleges and elsewhere]

 

 

 

THE CALL OF JEREMIAH

 

 

 

RONALD YOUNGBLOOD

Bethel Theological Seminary West

San Diego, CA 92115

 

 

For every true believer, the concept of a divine call should be abso-

lutely basic to his understanding of biblical religion. The call of Abram

(Gen 12:1-3) at the very beginning of the patriarchal history is the

seminal event referred to by Stephen at the very beginning of his

speech to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7. Adherents of all other religions are

asked to reach out to God, but the Bible everywhere describes God as

reaching out to us, searching for us, calling us. Elsewhere the direction

of the call is from down upward, as people seek to touch God in their

own strength and through their own devices, building towers of Babel

in uninvited attempts to storm the bastions of heaven. But in Scripture

the direction of the call is from above downward, and that difference

alone is enough to expose every man-made religion as being diametri-

cally opposed to biblical faith. F. Thompson has depicted God figura-

tively as "The Hound of Heaven," pursuing us relentlessly" down the

nights and down the days," "down the arches of the years" of our lives.l

Indeed, as the hymnwriter puts it,

 

Jesus calls us; o'er the tumult

Of our life's wild, restless sea,

Day by day His sweet voice soundeth,

Saying, "Christian, follow Me."2

 

It hardly needs to be stressed that the imperatives of the divine call

to any life do not take place in an historical vacuum, and supremely is

this the case when God calls a spokesman to perform a special task.

 

1 F. Thompson, The Hound of Heaven (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1922) 45.

2 C. F. Alexander, "Jesus Calls Us," Worship and Service Hymnal (Chicago: Hope,

1966) 407.



100 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

The call of each OT prophet or deliverer, for example, occurred in a

particular historical context that was usually precipitated by a national

crisis of some sort. For Moses it was the Egyptian crisis, for Gideon it

was the Midianite crisis, and for Jeremiah it was the sickness unto death

that was destined to bring the southern kingdom of Judah to her final

end.

The history of any nation furnishes examples of both good and

bad rulers. Although most of Judah's kings were wicked men to a

greater or lesser degree, a few of them tried to be faithful to the God

whose law their priests had been trained to teach and on whose behalf

their prophets spoke. One such good ruler was Hezekiah. By governing

his people for the most part wisely and well, he slowed down the decay

and disintegration of the kingdom. But much of Hezekiah's work of

spiritual renewal came to naught at his death, because he was suc-

ceeded by his reprobate son Manasseh--the most evil king ever to

occupy the throne of Judah.

The old saying, "Like father, like son," was not applicable to

Manasseh. He almost completely undid the religious reformation that

had been carried out under his father's direction. He built altars to Baal,

made altars for the worship of the starry hosts within the two courts of

the temple, and sacrificed one of his sons as an offering to false gods.

Although prophets warned him that he would be punished for his

terrible sins, he paid no attention to them and continued to shed

innocent blood throughout Jerusalem. In his later years he repented

somewhat, but it was too little and too late: the seeds of evil worship

and idolatry that he had sown would remain to plague Judah up to the

time of the Babylonian exile.

 

I. Historical Context of Jeremiah's Call (Jer 1:1-3)

 

About ten years before Manasseh's death, an important and fateful

event occurred in the land of Judah. There was nothing particularly

spectacular about it, and no one at the time could have recognized its

profound significance for the nation as a whole. The event was the

birth of a male child in the house of Hilkiah, one of the priests of

Anathoth, a little town located slightly more than an hour's walk north-

east of Jerusalem in the territory of Benjamin.3 The boy was fore-

 

3 The modern village of Anata preserves the ancient name of the site, while Iron

Age remains at Ras el-Kharrubeh ("Summit of the Carob Beans"), two-thirds of a mile

southwest of Anata, make identification of Ras el-Kharrubeh with the Biblical Anathoth

virtually certain; cf. The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land (rev. ed.; ed.

A. Negev; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1986) 28; W. L. Holladay, Jeremiah 1 (Hermeneia;

Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986) 16.



Ronald Youngblood: THE CALL OF JEREMIAH 101

 

ordained by God to become one of the two greatest prophets of Israel

under the Old Covenant, but of course at the time his father knew

nothing of that. He decided to give his son the relatively common and

lackluster name of Jeremiah.4

The early years of Jeremiah's life were crucial ones for Judah,

politically speaking. Manasseh died in due course, and when after only

two years of rule, Amon, Manasseh's son and successor, was murdered

by palace servants, the assassination must have left its mark on the

impressionable mind of the young Jeremiah.

With the accession of good King Josiah, however, the boy lived

out the rest of his teenage years in a fair degree of peace and serenity.

But

A boy's will is the wind's will,

And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts--5

 

and I cannot help wondering whether Jeremiah was entirely pleased

with the religious situation as he found it in his hometown. After all, his

father was a priest of the Lord, which made Jeremiah a "PK," a

"priest's kid," the OT equivalent of the modern-day "preacher's kid."

Jeremiah turned out so well in later life that his father must have been

the kind of man in whose vocabulary the word "discipline" loomed

large. Hilkiah doubtless taught his son the Ten Commandments, and to

love the Lord his God with all of his heart and mind and soul and

strength, and to love his neighbor as himself, and not to walk in the

counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of

mockers. The stern and dignified and unyielding character of Jere-

miah's later life assures us, from the human standpoint at the very least,

that his father had learned the secret of disciplining him in love. Fond

memories of those early years in his home must have strengthened

Jeremiah and given him solace and comfort as he went about the

difficult task that God commissioned him to perform.

And what was that task? Jeremiah was to be a spokesman for his

God. Indeed, the divine call to prophesy may well have come to him

while he was viewing the bleak landscape and the rocky terrain sur-

rounding Anathoth on one of the frequent hikes that are part and parcel

of any youth's routine. Every time he heard or even thought about the

name of his hometown Jeremiah must have shuddered inwardly, be-

cause Anathoth is the plural of Anath, the name of the infamous West

 

4 At least seven different OT men (cf. BDB 941), and perhaps as many as ten

(cf. B. T. Dahlberg, IDB 822), bore the name.

5 H. W. Longfellow, "My Lost Youth," American Poetry and Prose (3d ed.; ed.

N. Foerster; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947) 756-57.



102 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

Semitic goddess well known from Canaanite poetry of an earlier period

as the sister of Baal and ironically referred to in that poetry as "the

virgin."6 A parallel development is that of the city-name Ashtaroth, the

plural of the name of the equally infamous Babylonian goddess Ishtar,

known also as the "Queen of Heaven" (Jer 7:18; 44:17-19, 25). In the

ancient Near East, cities were often named for a tutelary god or

goddess, and such considerations caused Jeremiah, early in his ministry,

to taunt Judah by saying, "Where then are the gods you made for

yourselves? Let them come if they can save you when you are in

trouble! For you have as many gods as you have towns, O Judah" (Jer

2:28), and again: "You have as many gods as you have towns, O Judah;

and the altars you have set up to burn incense to that shameful god Baal

are as many as the streets of Jerusalem" (11:13).

As a young man, Jeremiah had already seen many of the evil

results of pagan worship, and he perhaps longed to do something-

anything--to foster and further the worship of the God of his fathers.

But we can be sure that he had no idea of the fearful responsibility that

the Lord was about to place on his shoulders.

The date of Jeremiah's call coincided with the "thirteenth year of

the reign of Josiah" (1:2), which was 627 or 626 B.C.7 That, says Jere-

miah, was when "the word of the LORD came" to him (1:2, 4; 25:3). He

later wrote that the Lord "began speaking to (him) in the reign of

Josiah" (36:2), and he dated an early divine oracle to him as occurring

"during the reign of King Josiah" (3:6). The year 626 B.C. would indeed

have initiated a time of crisis for Judah, for in that year Nabopolassar

became the ruler of Babylonia. He soon began an ambitious and

aggressive program of expansion that, under him and his son Nebu-

chadrezzar II, would lead not only to the devastation of Nineveh in

612, the obliteration of Assyria in 609, and the humbling of Egypt in

605, but also to the invasion and eventual destruction of Jerusalem, the

capital of Judah, together with the razing of its temple and the death

and/or exile of its people, primarily in 597 and 586 B.C. The latter year,

the "eleventh year of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah," also

marked the formal end of Jeremiah's prophesying in Jerusalem (1:3),

giving him a total ministry of about 40 years in that city.

 

6 Cf., J. C. de Moor, An Anthology of Religious Texts from Ugarit (Leiden: Brill,

1987) 7 n. 33; 114.

7 Although 627/626 B.C. as the date of Jeremiah's call is preferred by most com-

mentators (cf., e.g., H. H. Rowley, "The Early Prophecies of Jeremiah in Their Setting,"

A Prophet to the Nations: Essays in Jeremiah Studies [ed. L. G. Perdue and B. W. Kovacs;

Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1984] 33-37), others prefer much later dates (for a brief

survey see L. G. Perdue, "Jeremiah in Modern Research: Approaches and Issues," A

Prophet to the Nations 2-4; cf. also J. P.Hyatt, "The Beginning of Jeremiah's Prophecy,"

and C. F. Whitley, "The Date of Jeremiah's Call," A Prophet to the Nations 63-87;

Holladay, Jeremiah I 1-2).



Ronald Youngblood: THE CALL OF JEREMIAH 103

 

II. Literary Context of Jeremiah's Call

 

A comparison of the literary structure of the account of Jeremiah's

call with those of the accounts of the calls of Moses and Gideon reveals

that Jeremiah made extensive use of an outline that demonstrates his

firm conviction that Moses and Gideon, men of calling akin to his, were

his spiritual ancestors.8

 

Moses Gideon Jeremiah

1. Divine confrontation Exod 3:1-4a Judg 6:11-12a Jer 1:4

2. Introductory word 3:4b-9 6:12b-13 1:5a

3. Commission 3:10 6:14 1:5b

4. Objection 3:11 6:15 1:6

5. Reassurance 3:12a 6:16 1:7-9

 

It goes without saying that similarity of literary genre in no way denies

the actuality of the event described, its reality in space and time.9

 

III. Contents of Jeremiah's Call (Jer 1:5)

 

I like to think that, like his earlier kinsman Moses, Jeremiah re-

ceived his commission and made his commitment in a quiet retreat, far

from the hustle and bustle of the city. With Moses it was on "the far

side of the desert," near the burning bush, at Mount Sinai. Perhaps with

Jeremiah it was in a similar place. As far as we know, the appearance of

God to Jeremiah was not nearly so spectacular as it had been to Moses;

there was no burning bush or other startling visible phenomenon. But

although Jeremiah did not see or feel anything, at least not at first, he

heard the voice of the Lord speaking to him (1:4). While it is evident

from Scripture that people hear God when he speaks, and while it is

demonstrable that sometimes his voice is a sound audible to the human

ear (cf. 1 Sam 3:4-14),10 whether a word from God comes to us ex-

ternally or internally is usually of little consequence. Reception of

divine communication by means of an inward ear makes that com-

munication no less real. In any case we have no sure way of knowing

exactly how the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah.

Following the description of the divine confrontation (Jer 1:4),

which is elegant in its simplicity, the introductory word and its

 

8 Cf. N. Habel, "The Form and Significance of the Call Narratives," ZAW 77 (1965)

297-309; Holladay, Jeremiah 1 27. My comparison, although owing much to those of

Habel and Holladay, differs slightly from theirs.

9 Habel, "Form and Significance" 305,317.

10 For the possibility that the "prophetic call" of Samuel was in reality an "auditory

message dream theophany" see R. K. Gnuse, The Dream Theophany of Samuel (Lanham:

University Press of America, 1984).



104 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

attendant commission summarize the various elements of Jeremiah's

call. Four verbs are employed, all of which have "I" (= God) as their

subject and the suffixal "you" (= Jeremiah) as their object.

 

1. Creation. God says that he "formed" Jeremiah in the womb.

The verb "form" is regularly used to describe the work of a craftsman,

especially of a potter (cf. 18:1-6), and Gen 2:1 comes immediately to

mind: "The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground

and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a

living being." Creation by God was an element in the call of Jeremiah,

who was thereby "predestined to the prophetic office even before he

was born."11 In a sense, therefore, the verb "formed" is presupposed

by the other three verbs and serves as the indispensable pedestal on

which they stand. Though written for another purpose, the famous

words of Augustine are appropriate here: "You, a Lord, have created

us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."

 

2. Choice. God says that he "knew" Jeremiah. More a reference

to knowledge by experience (cf. Gen 4:1 MT) than to knowledge by

mere acquaintance--that is, more a reference to heart knowledge than

to head knowledge--the verb implies that God "knew" Jeremiah,

personally and individually and intimately, even before Jeremiah was

formed in the womb. Such knowledge is virtually the equivalent of

election or choice, and it carries with it elements of redemption12 as

well (cf. Gen 18:19 MT; Amos 3:2 MT). The verb "know" was also a

key ingredient in covenant terminology in the ancient Near East:13 The

suzerain was to "know" his vassal, and vice versa. Israel's knowing God

was therefore the expected joyful and loving response to his knowing

them, and this in turn had significant ramifications in the areas of social

justice (Jer 22:16), mutual understanding between God and his people

(Exod 33:12-13), and the like. It is thus ironic that Jeremiah's instinctive

and immature response to God's knowledge of him was that he did not

"know" how to speak (Jer 1:6).

 

3. Consecration. God says that he "set" Jeremiah "apart." The

underlying Hebrew root is usually translated "holy," as in Jer 2:3,

where Israel is depicted as "holy to the LORD" when she was in the

bloom of youth, early in her history. OT call narratives often use the

word "holy": Moses was told to remove his sandals because the place

 

11 J. Bright, "A Prophet's Lament and Its Answer: Jeremiah 15:10-21," A Prophet to

the Nations 329.

12 Habel, "Form and Significance" 307.

13 H. B. Huffmon, "The Treaty Background of Hebrew fdayA," BASOR 181 (February

1966) 31-37.



Ronald Youngblood: THE CALL OF JEREMIAH 105

 

where he was standing was "holy ground" (Exod 3:5), and Isaiah heard

seraphs calling to one another, "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Al-

mighty" (Isa 6:3). To approach God's presence, or to serve him, one

must be made holy, be consecrated, be set apart or sanctified by God

(Exod 19:14). Jeremiah was set apart in order that he might be able to

prophesy to people who, though once holy, were no longer so.

 

4. Commission. God says that he "appointed" Jeremiah as a

prophet to the nations. The underlying Hebrew root is usually trans-

lated "gave"; the meaning "appointed" is a nuance subsumed under the

derived sense of "put" or "placed." In Jeremiah's case, choice and

consecration were followed by commission, a special commission as a

prophet to the nations (cf. chaps. 25; 46-51). Far from being restricted

to merely provincial interests, Jeremiah's prophetic mission was to be

worldwide (in the context of his time). Such a divine appointment

could not but be expected to produce a reluctant response--indeed, a

negative response--from Jeremiah.

 

IV. Jeremiah's Objection to His Call (Jer 1:6)

 

Even had Jeremiah been anxious to do his part, was not God

asking a bit too much of him? How could he possibly be a prophet to

the nations? What academic credentials could he produce that would

qualify him for such a high position? What fame did he possess that

would command the attention and respect of the nations? His objec-

tions--excuses, really--were two in number.

 

1. Timidity. "I do not know how to speak." Moses at the burning

bush had also given his lack of eloquence, his inability to articulate his

thoughts with precision, as a reason that he hoped would be enough to

release him from the responsibility of leading his people out of bon-

dage in Egypt (Exod 4:10). The comparison between Jeremiah and

Moses in this regard is at least as old as the 4th century A.D., when

Ambrose of Milan wrote: "Moses and Jeremiah were called by the

Lord to preach God's oracles to the people, as he enabled them by

grace to do, but they pled timidity as an excuse."14 And, in a sense, who

can blame them? How could it be otherwise? Who is sufficient for such

things?

 

2. Youth. "I am only a child." Jeremiah may have been in his late

teenage years, or in his early twenties at best, when God called him.

Since wisdom came with experience and age in the ancient world, how

 

14 Quoted in W. L. Holladay, "The Background of Jeremiah's Self-Understanding.

Moses, Samuel, and Psalm 22," A Prophet to the Nations 314.



106 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

could God expect Jeremiah, young as he was, to accept such a daunting

task? Centuries later, how could Paul expect the young Timothy to "set

an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in

apurity" (1 Tim 4:12)? Can one really suppose that a mere child will

"flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and

peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart"

(2 Tim 2:22)? Jeremiah would some day learn not to trust in or boast of

wisdom, or strength, or riches, but rather to boast about his under-

standing and knowledge of God and his will (Jer 9:23-24). But for now

his response was characterized by the timid reluctance that is an all-

too-common accompaniment of youthful immaturity.

 

V. Divine Reassurance to Jeremiah (Jer 1:7-9)

 

The Lord's words of reassurance to Jeremiah not only repeat in

essence the content of the divine commission15 but also respond to his

twofold objection. The section 1:7-9 is paralleled in some respects by

the three verses that conclude the chapter (vv 17-19), and 1:7, 9 echo

Deut 18:18 in such a remarkable way that they assuredly reflect Jere-

miah's consciousness of being a prophet like Moses.16 Each verse of

reassurance may be treated in turn as a distinct unit.

 

1. Divine authority. To Jeremiah's objection that he is "only a

child" the Lord responds that he will give him the courage to go to

everyone he is sent to, and to Jeremiah's objection that he does not

"know how to speak" the Lord responds that he will give him the

ability to say whatever he is commanded to (1:7). The phrase "say

whatever I command" (cf. also 1:17) is a reflex not only of Deut 18:1817

but also of Exod 7:2,18 another classic text concerning Moses as a

spokesman called by God.

 

2. Divine presence. To Jeremiah's timidity the Lord responds

with the command not to fear as well as with the most comforting of all

promises: "I am with you" (1:8). The latter phrase is repeated in 1:19, a

phenomenon evident also in the call of Gideon (Judg 6:12, 16) and in a

profoundly important theological context, the account of the call of

Moses (Exod 3:12, 14 MT), where it is linked to the most intimate form

of the divine name, "I AM WHO I AM" (cf. also Judg 6:16 MT).19 God

as the great "I AM" does not intend by that name to teach us about his

 

15 Habel, "Form and Significance" 301.

16 J. A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

1980) 148.

17 Habel, "Form and Significance" 308.

18 Holladay, "Background" 315.

19 Habel, "Form and Significance" 319.



Ronald Youngblood: THE CALL OF JEREMIAH 107

 

ontological existence but rather to assure us of his gracious and protect-

ing and permanent presence. As Immanuel, "God With Us," he guaran-

tees that he will never leave us or forsake us. Central in the three

sentences of divine reassurance, the Immanuel theme is also a central

feature--some would say the most central and noteworthy feature--of

Scripture as a whole. For example, Matthew begins his gospel by

presenting Jesus Christ as "God with us" (Matt 1:23) and concludes it

by recording Jesus' words: "I am with you always" (28:20). The Bible

itself begins with God creating humankind for fellowship with him

(Gen 1:27; 2:7; 3:8) and concludes with John's prayer: "The grace of the

Lord Jesus be with God's people" (Rev 22:21). Small wonder that John

Wesley on his deathbed uttered in a clear, loud voice--more than

once--these words that became a watchword of Methodism: "The best

of all is, God is with us!"20

3. Divine touch. In a way analogous to the seraph's touching the

sinful lips of Isaiah (Isa 6:6-7), the Lord responds to Jeremiah's pro-

fessed lack of speaking ability by symbolically touching his mouth (Jer

1:9). The word "pat" is literally "given," found elsewhere only in Deut

18:18 and Jer 5:14 ("make") in the sense of "placing" words in some-

one's mouth.21 As God had "given" Jeremiah to be a prophet to the

nations (1:5), so now he has "given" Jeremiah his own words in order to

help him fulfill more adequately his divinely ordained mission.

 

VI. Conclusion

 

Jeremiah was appointed to be a "prophet" to the nations. The

English word "prophet" is a somewhat inadequate translation of the

Hebrew word xybinA, the passive participle of a verb best clarified in its

occurrences in Akkadian. There the verb nabu means "to call," and in

the prologue to his law code the Babylonian king Hammurapi referred

to himself as nibit Enlil, "one called by the god Enlil."22 Similarly, a

"prophet" of the Lord is "one called" by God to serve as a deputy, a

representative, an ambassador23 from the court of heaven--"one called"

by God to be a spokesman for God. He is a person who proclaims the

words that God tells him (Jer 19:2). The prophet, as one who has been

called, is a man of vocation.

How can we apply to our own lives and experiences this under-

standing of the role of the ancient Israelite prophet? We can learn to

 

20 C. T. Winchester, The Life of John Wesley (London: Macmillan, 1906) 263.

21 Holladay, "Background" 315.

22 Cf. CAD 11/2203 for additional examples.

23 Habel, "Form and Significance" 312, 318, 323.



108 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

pity the man in the ministry today for whom that ministry is a pro-

fession rather than a vocation. We can learn to pity the self-made

minister. It is only God who can "give," who can "make," who can

"appoint" a minister. The initiative in making a prophet rests with God,

and it is only the false prophet who arrogates that title to himself. The

ministry is a vocation, a calling; it is not a profession, something that a

man himself chooses as he would a book from a shelf or a frozen dinner

from a supermarket display case.

Miserable indeed must be the man who, without receiving a defi-

nite call from God, has willfully plunged ahead into the ministry any-

how! I am convinced that the weakness and spiritual lethargy that

characterizes far too many churches in these days is due at least

partially to the fact that their pulpits are occupied by uncalled men;

men who have usurped the divine prerogative and have placed them-

selves in positions that they have no right to hold. In such cases the

voice of authority is replaced by the voice of opinion; proclamation is

replaced by discussion; the Word of God is replaced by the words of

men.

But miserable indeed must also be the man who, having received a

definite call from God, has refused to obey that call! Jeremiah tried to

keep from speaking forth God's word at one point in his career, but he

was unable to keep it in because it was like a fire shut up in his bones

(Jer 20:9). Peter and John on one occasion said, "We cannot help

speaking about what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20). And Paul

referred to the inward compulsion that he felt: "Woe to me if I do not

preach the gospel!" (1 Cor 9:16). So it always is with the true prophet:

He becomes miserable when for one reason or other he is not engaged

in fulfilling his divine vocation.

I feel confident, however, in affirming that there is no happier man

on the face of the earth than the man who, having been called by God

to be a spokesman for God, has been obedient to the heavenly vision

and has answered the call with a resounding "Here am I. Send me!"

(Isa 6:8). Such a man was the prophet Jeremiah; such was the legacy

that had come down to him. He had been created, chosen, consecrated,

and commissioned by the Lord himself. His objections had been more

than answered by a gracious God. And he would soon learn that the

best of all is this: The Lord would be with him.

 

Hallelujah! what a Saviour!

Hallelujah! what a Friend!

Saving, helping, keeping, loving,

He is with me to the end.24

 

24 J. W, Chapman, "Our Great Saviour," Worship and Service Hymnal, no. 121.

 

 

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Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: thildebrandt@gordon.edu