In Jeremiah 20, Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, prays words that bring Job’s lament in Job 3 to mind. Job, who had lost almost everything, regretted the day that he had been born. Jeremiah prays his similar regret in even more graphic terms than those used by Job. He uses imagery so dark that Walter Brueggemann questions whether the prophet retained any faith when he said these words, saying that they are only “shrillness against a hostile abyss”(Commentary on Jeremiah, p. 185). Jeremiah prays about two opponents who oppress him. He cannot overcome God, but his human opponents will fail to overcome him because they too cannot overcome God.
Jeremiah prays bitterly, “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’ For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, ‘I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shur up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. For I hear many whispering: ‘Terror is all around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him! All my close friends are watching for me to stumble. ‘Perhaps he can be enticed, and we can prevail against him, and take our revenge on him.’ But the Lord is with me like a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail. They will be greatly shamed, for they will not succeed. Their eternal dishonor will never be forgotten. O Lord of hosts, you test the righteous, you see the heart and the mind; let me see your retribution upon them, for to you I have committed my cause” (Jeremiah 20:7-12).
God has “enticed” (other accurate translations would be “persuaded” or “seduced) Jeremiah into being his messenger. God’s message condemns Jeremiah’s countrymen. They respond, not with repentance, but with derision. They laugh at the prophet of doom, apparently nicknaming him “Terror on every side.” Jeremiah hates the ridicule. He detests preaching the message, but he cannot stop. He wants to stop, but God compels him to continue. Jeremiah has a conundrum: God, the dread warrior, forces him to say what he does not want to say, but God the deliverer is his only hope against those who attack him. He places his hope in God: “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord; For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers” (Jer. 20:13).
Like Job, Jeremiah wishes he had not been born. Even with his faith in God’s saving power, Jeremiah hates his prophetic task so much that he wishes he had not been born: “Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed! Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, saying, ‘A child is born to you, a son,’ making him very glad. Let that man be like the cities that the Lord overthrew without pity; let him hear a cry in the morning and an alarm at noon because he did not kill me in the womb, so my mother would have been my grave and her womb forever great. Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow and spend my days in shame?” (Jer. 20:14-18).
Jeremiah stuns us with his desperate lament; he wishes that a man had killed him while he was still in his mother’s womb rather than announcing his birth to his father. Ponder the intensity of the prophet’s prayer of lament: He wishes he had been aborted rather than born to preach God’s message to jeering hearers. Jeremiah’s prayers astonish us with their brutal honesty and graphic imagery. At the same time, he does not curse God nor his parents. He envisions God as one over whom he cannot prevail; he admits that this same God is his only hope of salvation. Jeremiah’s prayer points forward to another’s prayer, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Jesus prays for release from crucifixion, but like Jeremiah, submits his will to the one who has decreed his mission but is his only hope.
When we encounter increasing opposition to our efforts to live for God, we too may share Jeremiah’s experience of wanting to give up, yet feeling compelled to continue. Jeremiah’s prayers, like Job’s protests, express frankly frustration and sense of being trapped. Yet Jeremiah confesses that God must prevail and that only submission to God’s mission will succeed: “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the needy from the hands of evildoers.” So despite his desperation, his fear, and his shame, Jeremiah prays and discovers that he still can sing praises. May we too retain the capacity to sing in the midst of ridicule or attack for our faith.
People sometimes leave Sunday School as kids feeling like the Bible is some kind of cheery story book where all the stories have happy endings. In fact, it’s as real as our lives. More real. Jeremiah’s story from beginning to end is miserable and he retains his faith and knowledge that God is directing his hand. That’s awe-inspiring.
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