Criswell Theological Review 5.1 (1990) 99-108
[Copyright © 1990 by
digitally prepared for use at
THE CALL OF JEREMIAH
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
strength and through their own devices, building towers of
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 (
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
destined to bring the southern
The history of any nation furnishes examples of both good and
rulers. Although most of
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
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
somewhat, but it was too little and too late: the seeds of evil worship
idolatry that he had sown would remain to plague
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
occurred in the
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-
at Ras el-Kharrubeh ("
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.
Ronald Youngblood: THE CALL OF JEREMIAH 101
God to become one of the two greatest prophets of
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
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.
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.
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 ; 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,
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
), 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
many as the streets of
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
initiated a time of crisis for
aggressive program of expansion that, under him and his son Nebu-
chadrezzar II, would lead not only to the
also to the invasion and eventual destruction of
and/or exile of its people, primarily in 597 and 586 B.C. The latter year,
"eleventh year of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of
formal end of Jeremiah's prophesying in
giving him a total ministry of about 40 years in that city.
J. C. de Moor, An Anthology of Religious Texts from Ugarit
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;
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;
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 -12a Jer 1:4
2. Introductory word 3:4b-9 6:12b-13 1:5a
3. Commission 1:5b
4. Objection 1:6
5. Reassurance 3:12a 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
the desert," near the burning bush, at
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)
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
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 ; Amos 3:2 MT). The verb "know" was also a
key ingredient in covenant terminology in the ancient Near East:13 The
to "know" his vassal, and vice versa.
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 ), 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,
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
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-
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
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 )? 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 -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 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 ) 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 , a
phenomenon evident also in the call of Gideon (Judg , 16) and in a
profoundly important theological context, the account of the call of
Moses (Exod , 14 MT), where it is linked to the most intimate form
of the divine name, "I AM WHO I AM" (cf. also Judg ).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;
17 Habel, "Form and Significance" 308.
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 ) 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 ; 2:7; 3:8) and concludes with John's prayer: "The grace of the
Lord Jesus be with God's people" (). 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
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.
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.
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
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 ). And Paul
referred to the inward compulsion that he felt: "Woe to me if I do not
preach the gospel!" (1 Cor ). 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.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
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