Epiphany 4 · Jeremiah 1:4-10 · January 31, 2010
By Reed Lessing
“Blessed Lord, who hast caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning, grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them….” This familiar Collect for the Word is an apt theme for Jeremiah 1:4—10, as this pericope is all about Yahweh’s Word. This is evidenced by verse 4 (“The word of Yahweh came to me saying”), Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet (v. 5), Yahweh’s command for him to “say everything I command you” (v. 7), the “utterance of Yahweh” formula in verse 8, and the climactic verse 9, where Yahweh’s hand places his words in Jeremiah’s mouth. All of this is designed for Jeremiah to “inwardly digest” this holy Word.
Yahweh’s epiphanic Word to Jeremiah is echoed in the Psalm of the Day, specifically in Psalm 1:2, where the verb הגה (“to chew the cud”) is employed. As the blessed person “inwardly digests” Torah, he becomes “like a tree transplanted by canals of water” (v. 3). Jeremiah 17:8 employs this same promise, almost word for word. Those who “inwardly digest” Torah live abundant and fruitful lives.
After the first scroll (Jer. 1-25) dismantles the foundations of Judah’s social and theological “first principles,” the second scroll (Jer 26-52) begins to develop strategies that enable refugees to survive and even thrive in their new setting in Babylon. This understanding of the book is based upon Yahweh’s all-powerful Word that plucks up and breaks down, destroys and overthrows, as well as builds and plants (Jer 1:10). These six infinitive constructs in Jeremiah 1:10 are reiterated in 12:14-17; 15:7; 18:7-9; 24:6; 31:4-5, 28, 38, 40; 32:41; 42:10; 45:3; 49:38. This Law and Gospel Word, therefore, provides the book’s chief theological theme, as it brings about harsh endings, but also amazing beginnings (cf. Jer 29:11).
Comments on the text
Verse 4: Call narratives (e.g., Ex 3:1-12; Jgs 6:11-24; Is 6:1-8) typically follow this six fold structure: (1) encounter (Jer 1:4), (2) introductory word (Jer 1:5a), (3) commission (Jer 1:5b, 10), (4) objection (Jer 1:6), (5) reassurance (Jer 1:7-8), and (6) a sign (Jer 1:9-10,11-16). The דבר (“word”) not only gives information, but also imparts transformation; it is the power not only to persuade or to reason, but also to change the world (cf. Jer 23:29).
Verse 5: Three verbs are significant in this verse. The first is יצר which has creational overtones, calling forth the image of a potter forming a vessel from clay (Gn 2:7; Jer 18:6). The second is ידע which has a wide range of meanings, but here denotes a relationship between Yahweh and Jeremiah that means “to choose for a covenant partner” (cf. Am 3:2). Finally, the hiphil of קרשׁ means “to consecrate/ dedicate,” and, once set apart, it was an act of blasphemy to remove them from Yahweh’s sovereign ownership. The word נָבִיא (“prophet”) is derived from the Akkadian nabu, which means to “name” or “call.” A prophet would therefore be one who “calls” or “proclaims” a divine blessing. Since the verbal root (נבא) is niphal based, a prophet is one who has been “called” to discharge a divinely assigned task. As a “set as a prophet to the nations” Jeremiah’s oracles target Judah and Israel (chaps. 1-45), as well as other ancient Near Eastern nations (chaps. 46- 51). Yahweh did not choose Jeremiah for Jeremiah’s sake; he appoints him for the sake of the world.
Verse 6: Jeremiah’s hesitation is reminiscent of both Moses and Solomon (cf. Ex 2:7; 4:10; 1 Kgs 3:7). Josiah was a נער at age sixteen but apparently not at twenty (2 Chr 34:3); hence, Jack Lundbom (Jer 1-20, Anchor Bible) believes that Jeremiah is between the ages of twelve to sixteen. Much of this dialogue in verses 6-9 echoes Yahweh’s earlier encounter with Moses. Accordingly, like the first Moses who led Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land, so Jeremiah, the second Moses, will straddle two worlds, a country behind him and a country ahead of him. This new Moses will pronounce the death of one world and the birth of another (1:10).
Verse 7: The root נצל in the hiphil means “to rescue, protect, deliver.” The verb appears repeatedly in the Exodus narrative (e.g., Ex 3:8; 5:23; 6:6) and is another link to Moses.
Verse 8: Yahweh promises to be near many who find themselves debilitated by fears and uncertainties (e.g., Gn 31:3; Ex 3:12; 19:9; Jo 1:5, 9; Jgs 6:12, 16; Is 7:14; 8:8; Mt 1:23; 18:20; 28:20).
Verse 9: Here Deuteronomy 18:18b is quoted almost word for word; in this way. Jeremiah is one fulfillment of a prophet like Moses (Dt 18:15). Jeremiah later speaks of eating Yahweh’s Word in 15:16 and calls it his “joy and delight” (וְשִׂמְחָה שָׂשׂוֹן). These two words appear four more times in the book, and each time they are paired with “bride and bridegroom.” By means of this poetic word association, Jeremiah evokes the connection between the exuberance experienced by a “bride and bridegroom” with eating Yahweh’s Word, for this Word will enable him to shape the future of the nations not with a sword that a king or warrior might wield, but with the word that is “sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb 4:12; cf. Eph 6:17). The phrase נְאֻמ יהוה (“utterance of Yahweh”) appears 168 times in Jeremiah and as such accents the importance of this Word. All of this is to say that when Yahweh calls, he empowers; when he demands, he provides the resources to accomplish the assignment (cf. 1 Thes 5:24).
Verse 10: The verb פקד has an unusually broad semantic field which is difficult to pull together into one central definition. Helpful is its use in Ezra 1:10, where Yahweh commissions Cyrus to build a temple in Jerusalem. In like manner here, פקד means that Jeremiah is appointed to a position of authority.
Homiletical development of the sermon
“You’ve got to taste this.” So said our mothers as they thrust lima beans into our face. “You’ve got to taste this.” So say our spouses as they thrust their latest concoction of tuna casserole into our face. But all this pales in comparison to the taste test Yahweh gives to Jeremiah as he places his Word into his mouth. Inwardly digesting Yahweh’s Word is what this text is all about. In 15:16 Jeremiah says, “When your words came, I ate them; they were the joy and delight of my heart” (here reference the textual notes on the structure on the call narrative, Jeremiah’s weak status, and the importance of the Word in 1:4-10).
Having this Word placed in his mouth, Jeremiah is ready for what life would serve up. In chapter 26 he is accused by his enemies, and Yahweh’s Word vindicates him when officials come to his defense by claiming that Jeremiah is echoing an earlier oracle from Micah 3:12. In chapter 29 Jeremiah hears about hopeless exiles, so he communicates to them Yahweh’s Word by means of a letter. In chapters 51 and 52 Jeremiah is overwhelmed with the raw evil of Babylon, so Yahweh gives him a Word on a scroll that says in part, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the Great!” And in chapter 36, when he is confronted with the destruction of this Word by King Jehoiakim, Jeremiah writes another Word!
In Jeremiah’s lifetime Judah would lose everything: temple and sacrifice, monarchy, cities, and the land. But Judah would still have the Word, and this Word would undermine tyranny and mobilize the faithful. No wonder Jeremiah calls this Word his joy and delight, the love of his life (15:16).
To define our lives, Yahweh places his Word in our mouths as well. It’s a word that is “the power of God for the salvation of all who believe” (Rom 1:16)— a Word that is “a lamp to our feet and a light to our path” (Ps 119:105).
But isn’t there something tastier, more appetizing, with a bit more pizzazz? Here it is. For breakfast: one-half grapefruit, one piece of whole wheat toast, no butter, eight ounces of skim milk, coffee – black. For lunch: four ounces of lean broiled chicken breast, skin removed, one cup of steamed zucchini, herb tea, no sugar, one Oreo cookie. For a snack, the rest of the package of Oreo cookies, one quart chocolate almond ice cream, and one jar of hot fudge. For dinner, two loaves of garlic bread, heavy on the butter, one large sausage and pepperoni pizza, extra cheese, a large milk shake with whipped cream, and for dessert, three Milky Way candy bars and an entire frozen cheesecake!
Oh, we try, don’t we? We try to stay on a spiritual diet of God’s Word that brings vigor and health and strength and power. But then we slip: one Oreo cookie, one crumb of coveting, one piece of pornography, one slice of slander, one sip of sarcasm, and then the rest of the package of Oreo cookies! The enemy thrusts this junk food before us on silver trays and with a sly grin watches it all disappear. Filled with his miserable morsels, our desire to inwardly digest this Word becomes a chore, a bore, a snore until we say, “no more!”
So Yahweh would serve up one more Word; a more vindicating Word than that written by Micah in Jeremiah’s defense, a more hopeful Word than that penned to exiles, a more victorious Word than that spoken against Babylon, and a more enduring word than that rewritten for Jehoiakim. For coming down past the galaxies, past our solar system, past the moon and the stars, this Word became flesh and appeared in the silence of a night, in the whisper of a baby. And as a man his appetite is defined in Hebrews 2:9, “So that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”
Talk about a taste test! Jesus tasted the demonic delight called death, the soldiers’ spit, their cheap wine, sweat running down his cheeks; he tasted even his own blood. But there was more. He drank the cup of the Father’s wrath to the very last drop (Jer 25:15, 17,25).
But Jesus not only tasted Death. He swallowed him up, chewed him up, and spit him out. “Death has been swallowed up in victory!” (1 Cor 15:54). And now the spirit of the risen Christ creates in us a new hunger and a new thirst for righteousness. Spirit-led, “like newborn babes we crave pure spiritual milk now that [we] have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pt 2:2-3). On a steady diet of Yahweh’s Word and accused by the enemy, we say, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). This food enlivens hope in the midst of our hopelessness: “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope” (1 Pt 1:3). When enemies mock and deny this word we have a more powerful word, spoken by Jesus: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Mt 24:34). And sustained by this Word when faced with the raw evil of Babylon we cry out, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the Great!” (Rv 18:2).
Now the Lord reaches out his hand to touch your mouth and says to you, “Now, I am putting my words in your mouth.” What an epiphany, what a Word, what a life!