Ryken applies Jeremiah’s words to a contemporary audience, urging readers to search out spiritual fractures that may lie beneath the comfortable surface of daily life. Now with ESV Scripture references.
About the Author
Philip Graham Ryken (DPhil, University of Oxford) is the eighth president of Wheaton College. He preached at Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church from 1995 until his appointment at Wheaton in 2010. Ryken has published more than 50 books, including When Trouble Comes and expository commentaries on Exodus, Ecclesiastes, and Jeremiah. He serves as a board member for the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, the Lausanne Movement, and the National Association of Evangelicals.
R. Kent Hughes (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is senior pastor emeritus of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Hughes is also a founder of the Charles Simeon Trust, which conducts expository preaching conferences throughout North America and worldwide. He serves as the series editor for the Preaching the Word commentary series and is the author or coauthor of many books. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, and have four children and an ever-increasing number of grandchildren.
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A Prophet to the Nations
THE RABBIS CALLED HIM " The Weeping Prophet." They said he began wailing the moment he was born. When Michelangelo painted him on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he presented him in a posture of despair. He looks like a man who has wept so long he has no tears left to shed. His face is turned to one side, like a man who has been battered by many blows. His shoulders are hunched forward, weighed down by the sins of Judah. His eyes also are cast down, as if he can no longer bear to see God's people suffer. His hand covers his mouth. Perhaps he has nothing left to say.
His name was Jeremiah. His story begins like this:
The words of Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, one of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the LORD came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah, the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month. (1:1–3)
This introduction tells us a great deal about Jeremiah. He was a preacher's son, for his father Hilkiah was a priest. He was born in the village of Anathoth, close enough to Jerusalem to see the city walls, but at the edge of the wilderness, where the land slopes down to the Dead Sea. He labored as God's prophet for forty years or more, from 627 BC to some time after 586 BC. Four decades is a long time to be a weeping prophet.
Jeremiah lived when little Israel was tossed around by three great superpowers: Assyria to the north, Egypt to the south, and Babylon to the east. He served — and suffered — through the administrations of three kings: Josiah the reformer, Jehoiakim the despot, and Zedekiah the puppet. He was a prophet during the cold November winds of Judah's life as a nation, right up to the time God's people were deported to Babylon. Jeremiah himself was exiled to Egypt, where he died.
A Divine Call
Jeremiah's sufferings began with a divine call:
Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying,
"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." (vv. 4, 5)
God did wonderful things for Jeremiah before he was even born. He knew him. He formed him. He set him apart and appointed him as a prophet to the nations. He did all this long before Jeremiah drew his first breath or shed his first tear.
The call of Jeremiah is rich in its doctrinal and practical content. Among its important teachings are the following:
1. God is the Lord of life. God formed Jeremiah in the womb. Jeremiah had biological parents, of course, but God himself fashioned him and knit him together in his mother's womb. Telling children who ask where babies come from that they come from God is good theology. And it is not bad science either. The Lord of life uses the natural processes he designed to plant human life in the womb.
2. A fetus is a person. A person is a human being, created in the image of God, living in relationship to God. This verse testifies that the personal relationship between God and his child takes place in the womb, or even earlier.
Birth is not our beginning. Not even conception is our real beginning. In some ineffable way, God has a personal knowledge of the individual that precedes conception. "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you." This is the strong, intimate, Hebrew word for "know" that is also used to describe sexual intimacy between husband and wife.
"I knew you." What a beautiful thing for God to say to his children! "I loved you and cared for you in eternity past. I made a personal commitment to you even before you were born." And what a beautiful thing for parents to say to their children: "God knows you, God loves you, and God has entered into a personal relationship with you." This verse holds special comfort for mothers who have had miscarriages. It gives hope to parents who have lost children in infancy, and even for women who aborted their own babies. God knew your child, and he knows your child.
3. We do not choose God before God chooses us. If you want to know who you are, you have to know whose you are. For the Christian, the answer to that question is that you belong to Jesus Christ.
When did Jeremiah start belonging to God? When did God choose him? The prophet was set apart before he was born. While Jeremiah was being carried around in his mother's womb, God was making preparations for his salvation and his ministry. To set something apart is to sanctify it or to dedicate it to holy service. Long before Jeremiah was born, God chose him and consecrated him for ministry.
Given the intimacy of God's knowledge of Jeremiah, it is appropriate for Jeremiah to address him with the title "LORD GOD" (v. 6). God is sovereign. He not only forms his people in the womb, he sets them apart for salvation from all eternity.
God's choice is not unique to Jeremiah; it is true for every believer. This is known as the doctrine of divine election. "You did not choose me," Jesus said to his disciples, "but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit" (John 15:16a). "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ ... he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him" (Ephesians 1:3–4). This promise is for the whole church. Therefore, it is for the comfort of every Christian. God not only knows you, he chose you, and he did so long before you were ever conceived.
Eugene Peterson offers these practical conclusions about God's choice of Jeremiah:
My identity does not begin when I begin to understand myself. There is something previous to what I think about myself, and it is what God thinks of me. That means that everything I think and feel is by nature a response, and the one to whom I respond is God. I never speak the first word. I never make the first move.
Jeremiah's life didn't start with Jeremiah. Jeremiah's salvation didn't start with Jeremiah. Jeremiah's truth didn't start with Jeremiah. He entered the world in which the essential parts of his existence were already ancient history. So do we.
4. Every Christian has a calling. There is a general call, of course, to believe in Jesus Christ. But everyone who believes in Christ also has a special calling to a particular sphere of obedience and ministry. Jeremiah was not just set apart for salvation, he was set apart for vocation. God had work for him to do. The prophet had a mission to accomplish and a message to deliver to his generation.
Jeremiah's unique appointment was to be a prophet to the nations. God intended his ministry to be international in scope. Part of Jeremiah's job was to promise God's grace to the nations, proclaiming, "All nations shall gather to ... the presence of the LORD in Jerusalem" (3:17).
But to be a prophet to the nations also includes announcing God's judgment. By the time he reached the end of his ministry, Jeremiah had pronounced a divine sentence of judgment upon every nation from Ammon to Babylon. Just as all nations receive God's sovereign grace, all nations are subject to God's severe justice.
Jeremiah's calling is not for everyone. The first chapter of Jeremiah is mainly about his call for his times, not your call for your times. But you do have a call. God not only knows you and chose you, he has a plan for your life. As F. B. Meyer so eloquently puts it, "From the foot of the cross, where we are cradled in our second birth, to the brink of the river, where we lay down our armor, there is a path which he has prepared for us to walk in."
Perhaps you are still trying to figure out what God's plan is for you. Many Christians long to know what God is calling them to do. If you are not sure, there are at least two things you ought to do.
The first is to do everything you already know God wants you to do. You cannot expect to be ready for God's call, or even to recognize God's call, unless you are obeying what God has already revealed to you. This includes the obvious things, such as spending time in prayer and Bible study, serving the people with whom you live, remaining active in the worship of the church, and being God's witness in the world.
Second, ask God to reveal his will for your life. If you ask, he has promised to answer. "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him" (James 1:5).
A Dubious Candidate
Jeremiah knew what God wanted him to do. Yet even after he received his divine call, he was still a dubious candidate: "Ah, Lord GOD," he said, "I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth" (v. 6).
Jeremiah had two main objections to becoming a prophet: his lack of eloquence and his lack of experience. To paraphrase: "Ahhh, wait a second, Lord, about this whole prophet-to-the-nations thing ... It doesn't sound like that great an idea. Prophecy is not one of my spiritual gifts. As you know, I am getting a C in rhetoric at the synagogue. Besides, I am just a teenager."
Was Jeremiah being modest or faithless? Was it right for him to object to God's call or not?
A good way to answer those questions is to compare Jeremiah with some other prophets. Later the Lord reaches out his hand and touches Jeremiah's mouth (v. 9). This reminds us of Isaiah's experience when he saw " The Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple" (Isaiah 6:1).
Isaiah had one or two doubts about his calling too, but his doubts were different. Isaiah's main problem was that he had a guilty conscience: "And I said: 'Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!'" (v. 5). Isaiah did not doubt his ability, he doubted his integrity. When the seraph flew from the altar to touch Isaiah's lips with a live coal, he said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for" (v. 7).
Isaiah's experience was somewhat different from Jeremiah's. When God touched Jeremiah's lips, it was not to take away his sins, it was to give him God's words.
What about the call of Moses? Was Jeremiah's call like the call of Moses? Jeremiah's objection sounds very much like the objection Moses made when God called him: "Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue" (Exodus 4:10). Unlike Isaiah, Moses doubted his competence rather than his righteousness.
This was precisely Jeremiah's objection. He was not sure what to say or how to say it. He may have even been concerned about his foreign language skills, since God was calling him to an international ministry. Perhaps his grasp of Akkadian and Ugaritic was deficient. In any case, Jeremiah had his doubts about whether he could do the job.
Jeremiah's doubts find an echo in J. R. R. Tolkien's novel The Fellowship of the Ring. A hobbit named Frodo has been chosen to make a long and dangerous quest to destroy the one ring of power, a quest he himself would not wish to choose. "I am not made for perilous quests," cried Frodo. "I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?"
The answer Frodo is given is similar to the one God's prophets often receive: "Such questions cannot be answered ... . You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess; not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have."
When God gives his servants a clear calling, he does not accept any excuses. " Then the LORD said to him [Moses], 'Who has made man's mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak'" (Exodus 4:11, 12).
God said much the same thing to Jeremiah. To put it plainly, he said, "Don't give me that stuff!" "Do not say, 'I am only a child.' You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you'" (1:7). " 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'" (v. 9).
God did not disqualify Jeremiah on the basis of his youth and inexperience. In fact, he treated him the same way he treated Moses. He did not deny the basis for the prophet's objection. He did not argue with Jeremiah about his speaking credentials or quibble with him about his age. Jeremiah may have had reasonable doubts. But God exposed his false humility for what it really was: a lack of faith.
Jeremiah had forgotten that God is not limited by human weakness. God himself possesses everything Jeremiah needs to answer his call. In fact, enabling weak tools to do strong jobs is God's standard operating procedure. His entire work force is comprised of dubious candidates. When God calls someone to do a job, he gives him or her all the gifts needed to get the job done. With God's calling comes God's gifting.
This does not mean that your gifts and abilities do not matter when you are trying to figure out what God wants you to do with your life. They do matter. If you do not know what God is calling you to do, take an honest look at the gifts he has given you. If necessary, ask others to help you figure out what your gifts are.
But once you know what God has called you to do, trust him to equip you to do it. God equipped Jeremiah to be an international prophet in some amazing ways. He was a polymath, a great scholar, a man of prodigious learning. He was able to converse in the fields of politics, economics, comparative religion, geography, theology, botany, zoology, anthropology, military strategy, architecture, industry, agriculture, fine arts, and poetry.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Jeremiah and Lamentations"
Copyright © 2001 Philip Graham Ryken.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A Word to Those Who Preach the Word,
1 A Prophet to the Nations (1:1–10),
2 When the Almond Tree Blossoms (1:11–19),
3 God Files for Divorce (2:1–37),
4 The Way Back Home (3:1–18),
5 True Repentance (3:19–4:4),
6 Lament for a City (4:5–31),
7 A Good Man Is Hard to Find (5:1–19),
8 What Will You Do in the End? (5:20–6:15),
9 At the Crossroads (6:16–30),
10 What the Church Needs Now Is Reformation! (7:1–15),
11 The Family That Worships Together (7:16–29),
12 The Valley of Slaughter (7:30–8:3),
13 Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth (8:4–17),
14 There Is a Balm in Gilead (8:18–9:11),
15 Something to Boast About (9:12–24),
16 The Scarecrow in the Melon Patch (9:25–10:16),
17 This Is (Not) Your Life (10:17–25),
18 Amen, Lord! (11:1–17),
19 How Can You Run with Horses? (11:18–12:6),
20 Paradise Regained (12:7–17),
21 Corruptio Optimi Pessima (13:1–27),
22 For God's Sake, Do Something! (14:1–22),
23 When God Lets You Down (15:1–21),
24 Jeremiah, the Pariah (16:1–17:4),
25 Like a Tree (17:5–18),
26 Keep the Lord's Day Holy (17:19–27),
27 In the Potter's Hands (18:1–23),
28 Vessels of Wrath (19:1–15),
29 Dark Night of the Soul (20:1–18),
30 No King but Christ (21:1–22:30),
31 Music for the Messiah (23:1–8),
32 I Had a Dream! (23:9–40),
33 Two Baskets of Figs (24:1–25:14),
34 "Take from My Hand This Cup" (25:15–38),
35 Delivered from Death (26:1–24),
36 Under the Yoke (27:1–22),
37 A Yoke of Iron (28:1–17),
38 Seek the Welfare of the City (29:1–9, 24–32),
39 The Best-Laid Plans (29:10–23),
40 "And Ransom Captive Israel" (30:1–17),
41 Messiah in the City (30:18–31:6),
42 Rachel, Dry Your Tears (31:7–26),
43 The New Covenant (31:27–40),
44 Buyer's Market (32:1–25),
45 Is Anything Too Hard for God? (32:26–44),
46 "Pardon for Sin and a Peace That Endureth" (33:1–9),
47 While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks (33:10–16),
48 God Never Fails (33:17–26),
49 The Emancipation Revocation (34:1–22),
50 Promise Keepers (35:1–19),
51 Book Burning (36:1–32),
52 Benedict Jeremiah? (37:1–21),
53 In and Out of the Cistern (38:1–13),
54 A Private Audience (38:14–28),
55 Brands from the Burning (39:1–18),
56 A Remnant Chosen by Grace (40:1–41:15),
57 A Fatal Mistake (41:16–43:13),
58 The King or the Queen? (44:1–30),
59 Attempt Small Things for God (45:1–5),
60 God of All Nations (46:1–47:7),
61 The Pride of Life (48:1–47),
62 Most High over All the Earth (49:1–39),
63 "Full Atonement! Can It Be?" (50:1–46),
64 "Fallen! Fallen Is Babylon the Great!" (51:1–64),
65 "How Lonely Sits the City" (52:1–34),
66 Five Laments: An Epilogue (1–5),
Index of Sermon Illustrations,