By Father Justin Blanc
We’re all in the midst of a story, and some moments are more dramatic than others. When the story that is unfolding in our life becomes complicated, even painful, we rightly turn to God to try to make sense of the difficulty we encounter. Part of our turn toward God involves entering into dialogue with his Word in Sacred Scripture. In this dialogue with God, the Book of Jeremiah speaks with a voice unlike any other: its timbre has captivated readers for generations and invites us to read aspects of our own story through the lens of Jeremiah’s life.
Jeremiah is not an easy read. The longest book in the Bible, it is brimming with theological and historical content: there are oracles of condemnation and offers of salvation; there is a city under siege and the excruciating human experience of a prophet entrusted with a difficult task. The story plays out in a particular moment of history, but the echo of this story has lost none of its relevance, even millennia later. The Book of Jeremiah is a space in which God and man meet, question, and even accuse one another. It is the drama of God’s will operating in human history. The Word of God, once fulfilled so swiftly (Let there be light. And there was light.), is now complicated by free human beings who often delay turning on the light offered by God.
The Book of Jeremiah, like our lives, is perhaps not as neatly ordered as we would like. It sometimes seems a chaotic patchwork of genres, authors, and ideas. But there is a connecting thread to be found, beginning in Jeremiah’s first conscious encounter with God.
This article will briefly look at how Jeremiah’s vocation story has a paradigmatic value that sets the tone for the drama that plays out across his entire life.
The prophet’s vocation story is found in Jeremiah 1:1-19. In this passage Jeremiah’s entire existence is placed into the larger context of God’s providence. Being a prophet is not just Jeremiah’s day job from 9 to 5; rather, his very being—body, soul, personality, etc.—is formed from the beginning according to God’s design:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you”.
Jeremiah protests that he is too young and does not know how to speak, but God responds,
“Say not, ‘I am too young.’ To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak. Have no fear before them, because I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.”
The Lord then extends his hand, touches Jeremiah’s mouth, and says, “See, I place my words in your mouth!”
What follows in the next few verses is a series of images that predict the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and Jeremiah’s involvement as prophet. War, violence, and judgment are coming, and Jeremiah will find himself right in the middle of it. These verses are full of battle imagery that foreshadows the violence that the city of Jerusalem and Jeremiah himself will soon undergo. Once again, however, in verse 19 the Lord promises to uphold Jeremiah:
“They will fight against you, but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.”
This is the second time in the vocation story of Jeremiah that the Lord offers the encouraging promise: “I am with you to deliver you”. As consoling as it may be, however, it doesn’t erase the difficult reality that God also promises: “they will make war against you.” The Lord doesn’t tell his prophet that life will be easy. He tells him to prepare for war.
In this early dialogue, the Lord renders his prophet invincible, but not invulnerable. Jeremiah is invincible in the sense that he will not be overcome in the end, for the Lord is with him; nevertheless, he remains a man, and he remains vulnerable. He will be attacked; he will be wounded. In the end his scars will tell the dramatic story of his life as a prophet in the midst of a heard-hearted nation. The drama alluded to in the vocation story of Jeremiah plays out across the rest of the book.
Usually the prophetic books of the Bible give little-to-no insight into the personality of the prophet himself. The Book of Jeremiah, however, is a fascinating exception. There are five different passages that give the reader profound insight into the psyche and experience of Jeremiah as he carries out his prophetic vocation. These texts can’t be examined in detail here, but they must be read in order to understand the drama of existence faced by this man of God: 11:18-12:6; 15:10-21; 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-18.
Often referred to as the “confessions” of Jeremiah, these passages are perhaps more accurately considered texts of lament or protest. Indeed, there is something extraordinary happening here: Jeremiah freely expresses his troubles and even calls into question the way that God is directing history! These words of protest against God are then given back to us readers as the inspired Word of God. How can it be that a faithful prophet’s arguments with God are themselves part of the inspired Word of God, given to us to help form and express our faith?
This mysterious dynamic of prayer and protest in the Book of Jeremiah opens up many avenues of reflection; I’ll conclude with just two:
When these texts of lament are read in light of Jeremiah’s vocation story, it becomes clear that the suffering and drama that he passes through are not extrinsic or coincidental to his prophetic vocation. The drama was part of the original call, and salvation comes after faithfully passing through it.
Moreover, Jeremiah’s honest expression of his woes reminds us that we too can be honest in our dialogue with God. In prayer, we need not filter out the difficult parts of our lives as if God were a caricature of a pious grandmother whom we are afraid to scandalize with the hard reality of our human experience. When we, like Jeremiah, articulate our protests honestly to God, he leads us to a more mature understanding of the mysterious and great purpose to which he has called us. He reminds us of the moment when he first called us, and he repeats the promise that makes all the difference: “Yes, but I am with you.”