It is certain that Jeremiah the prophet encountered great difficulties in his life of preaching to the people of Judah. Often he was arrested and threatened with violence because of the message assigned to him by God – the message of imminent invasion by the Assyrians and the seventy year captivity. He told the people to repent, to seek God’s favor, to turn from idols and the dark practices of pagan cults, only to be denied access to the love of the very people he was trying to save. Jeremiah wept bitterly over the reproach that fell upon him, and has often been deemed the “weeping prophet.” One writer says, “The prospects held out by Jeremiah were gloomy indeed. [His] message was, from its very nature, doomed to an unfavorable reception… It cost Jeremiah much to be a prophet of ill; to be always threatening ‘sword, famine, pestilence,’ and the destruction of that temple which was ‘the throne of Jehovah’s glory’” (Pulpit Commentary, Vol. XI, vii).
While it is conceivable that we will never encounter such suffering in our own lives, and let us pray to God that we never do, we must realize that Jeremiah was a man with a nature like ours. He was tempted just like us, and encumbered by the same weaknesses. The emotions that he felt were no more human than our own. In so many ways, Jeremiah is a character whose study is applicable to every person for all time.
To understand a small portion of what went through Jeremiah’s spirit as he suffered so many things, it is beneficial to consider a section of scripture that is indicative of the kind of response this holy man had to the scenario in which he found himself. How did Jeremiah handle the pressure, the hatred, the reproach, and the weight of so much on his soul? Did he ever doubt? Did he ever give up? Did he ever find himself so laden with lamentation that he removed himself from the responsibility of being a prophet? Indeed, so much can be seen into the mind of Jeremiah in Jeremiah 20:7-13, a marvelous work of introspective recollection with an abundance of modern applications. Of this text, someone wrote, “A lyric passage, expressing the conflict in the prophet’s mind owing to the mockery and the slander which his preaching has brought upon him, and at the same time his confidence of victory through the protection of Jehovah” (T.K. Cheyne, 463).
Jeremiah 20:7-8 – “O Lord, Thou hast deceived me and I was deceived; thou hast overcome me and prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For each time I speak, I cry aloud; I proclaim violence and destruction, because for me the word of the Lord has resulted in reproach and derision all day long.”
A more exact translation of the word would have Jeremiah saying, “O Lord, Thou hast enticed me and I allowed myself to be enticed.” This rendering could be referring to Jeremiah’s original hesitation in Jeremiah 1:6. Facing a future of hardship, it seems that as a young man, the prophet did not want to take on the responsibility of the task. However, the Lord had an answer for every argument presented by the man, and Jeremiah was convinced to accept his role. It is likely, though, that he says these things in our text out of some lingering feeling of resentment, as if he is trying to tell God that he was not informed about the cost of being a prophet – as if he did not expect a daily dose of “reproach” and “derision” because of the word! Do we ever express the same feelings when Christianity seems to be a burden? Indeed, it is tempting to blame God and accuse Him of not disclosing all of the conditions of the contract – as if Christianity was sold to us without having a chance to read the fine print. But is this true? Can it be said that God has kept back some information from us? “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange things were happening to you…” (1 Peter 4:12). Rather than hiding these things, God is making it clear that suffering should never surprise us. We should, in fact, expect it as Christians! As for Jeremiah, God kept back nothing from him, either, making it very clear that great suffering awaited him as a prophet (Jeremiah 1:19).
“I have become a laughingstock…” Indeed, Jeremiah had become a joke to many of the inhabitants of Judah. He was an object of sarcasm. This verse sounds very similar to Psalm 69:10-12, in which the writer describes how his passion for true religious humility led him to be “a byword” and a “song of the drunkards.” How sad it is that the majority of society tends to act in the same way, mocking truly spiritual people. Is it really so funny when a Christian feels passion for his faith? Is it a joke that Christians spend every Sunday worshipping God? Even more than that, why is it funny when Christians try to spend every day, by their piety, honesty, and clean living, trying to worship God? The most important question of all, of course, is whether or not we are embarrassed because of these conditions. We cannot change the entire world, and there will always be people who mock us for our daily response to the call of Christ. But we do have control of ourselves, and how we react to the mockery of the world (Romans 12:2).
“I proclaim violence and destruction…” At times, the only appropriate sermon is one meant to shock. God does not have a problem with “fire and brimstone” as long as it is used for the right reasons, before a suitable audience. In fact, in Jeremiah’s case, he felt like the only thing God ever wanted to him to speak was on the subject of doom – a message that God apparently believed was wholly justified in this context.
Jeremiah 20:9 – “But if I say, ‘I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name,’ then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it.”
Jeremiah’s reaction to the suffering ended up being a rejection of his duties. Perhaps he believed that just ignoring God, or running away from Him, would emancipate him from responsibility to the Word. Lest we become too judgmental of Jeremiah, let us consider how we would respond in his situation, for we have a nature not unlike his in many ways. If we were to face a lifetime of suffering because of God, would we not at least consider turning on Him? Truly, history is filled with people who did – men and women who cracked under the pressure of torture in the first century, or prisoners of the Catholic inquisitions, or Christians who could not face the realities of service to God. Does not even Christ teach about the seed that fell among the rocky soil? According to Matthew 13:20-21, this seed represents the man who “has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away.” While we certainly do not experience the same kind of physical persecution today, this lesson can be seen in the way we handle mockery or embarrassment. Every day we are presented with opportunities to say or do righteous deeds that other people consider peculiar – or even offensive, depending on the context. And when we do yield to the pressures around us, it results in a dismissal of the Word.
There is hope for us, though, and it is found only in genuine love for the Word of God. The person who truly hungers and thirsts for righteousness will always have some conscience – at least enough that fleeing from God will induce guilt. This must have been why Jeremiah described himself as burning up inside when he refused to preach to the people. His love for God led him to feel guilty about not doing his duties, thus leading him to return to his post as a watchman and a prophet.
Jeremiah 20:10 – “For I have heard the whispering of many, ‘Terror on every side! Denounce him; yes, let us denounce him!’ All my trusted friends, watching for my fall, say: ‘Perhaps he will be deceived, so that we may prevail against him and take our revenge on him.’”
It is always disappointing to be the last one to hear about your own doom – for Jeremiah, he felt like everybody else was whispering about him, condemning him, denouncing him, as if the “many” were already well informed about the “terror” awaiting the prophet of God. This is how it was for many prophets; they lived on the edge of life and death, taking great confidence in the Lord’s ability to protect them from their numerous enemies, and always unsure about when or where the terror would arise next. “Terror on every side!” Often, our enemies want us to believe that our situation is much worse than it really is. The discouragement of such news is certainly enough to shake the faith of the weak, but we must remember that things are not always as bad as they seem. Let us avoid the drastic overgeneralizations of the faithless: “Everybody hates me,” “Nobody else believes what I believe,” “There is no potential mate out there who shares my morals,” “I feel like I’m all alone,” “The church is doing absolutely no good in this community,” “It seems like we never baptize anybody these days,” etc.
“All my trusted friends…” The truly sad part about this account is that it is often our own brethren who deceive the easiest. Few things hurt more than being stabbed in the back, though. We can always appreciate the statements made by the psalmist in Psalm 55:12-14. Pain and suffering are bearable if they come from our enemies – but when the source of our afflictions is a friend and companion, the same person who served with us on the Lord’s table, the same man who was there when we were baptized, the same woman who taught our children in Bible class – the hurt of that betrayal is almost immeasurable. One writer notes, “It seems an awful thing to say, yet it is true, that there are betrayers… in [some] Christian congregations today – men and women who have professed conversion to Christ, who share in the fellowship and labors of the saints, who nevertheless seem to find a cruel pleasure in the fall of a Christian leader” (Explore The Book, Baxter, 241). “…Watching for my fall…” If it is not bad enough that his trusted friends derided him, they had to wait around him like predators hovering over a wounded animal. Do you ever feel like this in certain situations? It seems like there will always be people around us just salivating at the opportunity to smear our names or spread rumors. People at work, disgruntled family members, or even close friends who may have a secret grudge against us – these are the deceptive individuals who lay traps for us, or monitor our every move, hoping that we will slip up and give them a reason to bring their hatred to light. But why? Indeed, in Jeremiah’s case it was hatred of the message. He told them what they did not want to hear, so they attacked him viciously. For our enemies, it may be the same. It also might be jealousy over how peaceful our families are. They may observe our quiet and happy lives in comparison to the vanity of their sins and seek our destruction, ever skeptical of the seemly appearance of the Christian life.
Jeremiah 20:11 – “But the Lord is with me like a dread champion; therefore my persecutors will stumble and not prevail. They will be utterly ashamed, because they have failed, with an everlasting disgrace that will not be forgotten.”
“…Like a dread champion.” Other translations have this phrase rendered “like a mighty terrible one,” or “as a formidable warrior.” Essentially, a dread champion was a man whose reputation and deeds warranted fear in the eyes of his opponents. In either the fields of combat, or the arena of gladiatorial struggle, a dread champion was revered and honored, feared and dreaded by those who would face him in battle. When we have the Lord on our side, we have the ultimate warrior – a being who knows all and can manipulate nature to fulfill His ends. He watches over us and guides us, protecting us from all our enemies. “They will not prevail.” Thus was the promise given to Jeremiah by God at the outset of his ministry. “And they will fight against you, but they will not overcome you, for I am with you to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:19). Like all the promises of God, this was kept. Although the enemies of Jeremiah harmed him greatly throughout the years of his life, he was never overtaken by the evils that surrounded him. He survived all of his ordeals and, as historical evidence suggests, died at a very old age in Egypt.
Jeremiah 20:12-13 – “Yet, O Lord of hosts, Thou who dost test the righteous, who seest the mind and the heart; let me see Thy vengeance upon them; for to Thee I have set forth my cause. Sing to the Lord, praise the Lord! For He has delivered the soul of the needy one from the hand of evildoers.”
What a difference this is from Jeremiah’s attitude at the beginning of this text! “Thou who dost test the righteous…” It is interesting to note that Jeremiah understood that all of these things took place as a test. It is not that God predisposes all of us for tests like this, but every act of suffering can be viewed as a test as long as we learn something from it. The Lord wants His people to be well-rounded, hardened soldiers, tempered by the flames of reproach for the sake of soberness in the days that await us. In training for the army, is it not wholly appropriate to test the battle-readiness of a soldier through calculated affliction? And after the discipline, each man ends up a more complete warrior. We should not be surprised or angered by the existence of suffering in this world, then. Whether all suffering is induced by God for some grand purpose or not is unclear. But in the face of these conditions, can we not all learn and grow?
As a result of his afflictions, Jeremiah could confidently say at the end of this scripture that God delivered him from the hands of death and “set forth his cause.” If we show the same attitude of confidence and forbearance, we will all likewise finish the course with a soul strengthened by the Lord and delivered by His mighty hand (2 Timothy 4:7-8).